Is ‘Elysium’ Science Fiction Or Science Fact? [Interview]

By Amber Lena

NASA’s Mark Uhran is the former Assistant Associate Administrator of the International Space Station. MTV Geek had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Uhran about the technology seen in Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” (starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster), how it relates to today’s space station technology, and whether something like “Elysium” would be technologically possible in the future.

MTV Geek:  Obviously we already have space stations. How much of the technology seen in “Elysium” is already a reality?

Mark Uhran: Well Elysium is an extraordinarily large space station. So we’ve demonstrated the ability to build a large space structure with the space station. The current space station is about 500 metric tons. But the magnitude of Elysium is clearly several hundred years in the future. You would have to move a huge amount of material either from the surface of Earth up into space or you would have to go out and gather it from asteroids or the lunar surface in order to bring it back and construct something as big as Elysium. And that would probably take a new generation of propulsion technology. it’s unlikely that you could move that much with the chemical propulsion that we use today. But in the future we could see forms of nuclear propulsion that would allow you to move large quantities of mass and construct something the size of Elysium.

 Geek: That leads right into my second question. There is a saying that today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact. Do you think this is true of “Elysium.” Are we going to have mansions in space one day?

Uhran: Well I don’t know about mansions, that’s a social phenomenon, not a technological one. But I do believe that sometime in this millennium, keeping in mind that a millennium is a thousand years, sometime between 2000 and 3000, we’ll have the technological capacity to deploy very very large space structures that can accommodate the living needs of larger and larger populations of people. I just don’t know if it will have mansions and swimming pools.

Geek: Do you think it’s going to be possible at some point to completely replicate the Earth’s atmosphere on a space station or space ship. There’s been talk about terraforming and trying to colonize Mars, but would it be possible to achieve a similar effect within the structure of a space station?

Uhran Well that’s essentially what we do on the international space station. We replicate the Earth’s environment and control if very closely for a very small number of people. Six people, and on occasion we’ve had more than six people, but typically there are six permanent residents on the space station we have today. And what that system recycles almost 80% of the water that’s used there and a large percent of the oxygen as well. Being able to recycle water and oxygen are very critical aspects and we’re well on the way to proving that it can be recycled, so yes I do believe that we’ll be able to do that on larger space stations in future centuries. You also raised the question of whether or not you’ll ever be able to do it on the surface of another planet, Mars for example. Well, that’s a much bigger challenge. There are theories about how you would terraform a planet. I’m not an expert in planetary terraforming so I can’t tell you if that’s really practical or not. It’s pretty imaginative right now.

Geek: I’m afraid my one semester of planetary geology isn’t going to help much there. What about weather? Is it a goal to somehow replicate weather on the space station?

Uhran: Well you’re controlling the atmosphere that you’re living in. So there’s really no weather so to speak. There’s no independent forces that are causing weather. You’re trying to continuously control your temperature, your humidity. The same kind of factors we try to control in our homes down on Earth. In a closed environment, like a space station, yes you can certainly control that atmosphere, and that’s been proven already.

Geek: Where is space station research currently headed and what are the next steps you think we’re going to see in space station technology? In the next ten years?

Uhran: Well currently there’s really two major thrusts. One is in human biomedical research, and that’s looking at all the body’s systems: cardio system, respiratory, neurological, musculoskeletal. Because they need to understand how to adapt to space conditions, or develop countermeasures that allow them to cope with the unique conditions of space. There’s a very active biomedical research program underway and has been for years, sponsored by NASA. The second area is that larger and larger chemical propulsion rockets are being developed so that humans can travel further distances from space. And I think, I certainly hope, that in the next decade we can make progress beyond chemical propulsions systems and into nuclear propulsions systems because that’s what’s really going to be necessary to cut down the time required to travel form point to point in space.

Geek: Is there anything more you want to say about space station technology or “Elysium” in particular before we move on to the super fun questions?

Uhran: Okay. Well I mean I think the premises, the technical premises, of the Elysium space station are entirely believable if you allow enough time. I couldn’t say whether it was going to be 150 years in the future or 750 years in the future, but our technology is definitely growing and will reach that stage in this millennium I believe.

Geek: I have a few fun, get-to-know you type of questions. What’s one thing in science fiction (movies, TV, books) that you personally want to see happen soon? Whether it’s marketable jetpacks, or even something that’s impossible.

Uhran: Well, I would say, although I’m a great lover of science fiction. I read science fiction when I was young and was a follower of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. I think they were brilliant, brilliant authors. But the thing I would like to see happen is the microgravity environment, or what some people call zero gravity environment, is an extremely unique environment and throughout the course of human history, any time humans have had access to a new environment, they’ve learned how do to useful things with it. What I’m most interested in seeing are useful things done with the microgravity environment on board the space station that we currently have in orbit.

Geek: If you could have any superpower–physics do not have to apply here–what superpower would you most like to have?

Uhran: Perfect memory.

Geek: That’s a good one, I would love that one myself.

Uhran: I love to read, I love to study, and I just wish that every single thing I ever read or studied, I could retain.

Geek: Now this next one is a bit of a trademark question. If you could have a tail, as in an animal tail, what kind would you have and why?

Uhran: Hmm. A tail. I think I would go with a fish tail, assuming of course that I could live in the water. It’s such a powerful–I mean it’s like having two legs. A tail of a fish is what propels the fish through the water. I believe we have barely scratched the surface of oceanography. Most of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, and we’ve just begun exploring it. I would love to explore the oceans with a tail the same way astronauts explore space with a spaceship.

Geek: Anything you would like to say to encourage more people to get into the sciences or to encourage those who are pursuing degrees in science?

Uhran: One of the things I learned working on the International Space Station for 28 years was the power of relentless pursuit. Persistence. If there is a goal you want to achieve, you have to be patient and persistent and never give up. You can achieve goals that will surprise you. We were fortunate because we had an international partnership involved so we got to work with people from all over the world that had that persistence and we all accomplished something that many people thought was impossible. That was very gratifying.

Geek: Awesome. That concludes the interview questions I have for you. Thank you so much for your time, it was a pleasure.

Catch “Elysium” in theaters on August 9th.

Watch: “Elysium” Trailer 1

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