We asked a space engineer how accurate those sci-fi space movies really are.

From Gravity to The Martian to this year’s Life starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, it seems both filmmakers and audiences have a strong fascination with space.

Why wouldn’t we? It’s magical, mysterious and much of it is still rather unknown.

Someone who knows a little (OK, probably a lot) more about it than most is Andrea Boyd.

Andrea Boyd. Image: Supplied

Born in Adelaide, she's a Flight Operations Engineer at the International Space Station - but the one in Cologne, Germany rather than the one 400 kilometres above our heads.

"I work in Mission Control so I'm one of the people on ground control with consoles and far too many computers who talks to the astronauts and communicates with them," she says.

Unsurprisingly, every day at work is different.

"It's totally different every day - super dynamic. I'll talk to mission controls around the world working out who's going to say what to the astronauts then go straight into running experiments for 12 hours of the day. It's the same thing in the evening, then the crew sleeps," she says.

The experiments are run between all the different labs on the stations including in the US, Russia and Japan, with 200 different experiments being done at once.

Listen: Dianne McGrath speaks to Mia Freedman about the Mars One mission. Post continues after audio.

"They can be anything from basic things like chemistry, physics and applied biology to medical developments and finding different cures for diseases," she says.


While most of us are endlessly fascinated by space movies that show a world entirely removed from our own, you might assume when it's your day-to-day work, it's harder or less enjoyable to watch or you spend all your time pointing out what's inaccurate.

Not for Boyd.

"I really like watching all space films - that's what got me into engineering in the first place watching sci fi," she says.

As for how realistic all these films are? Well, you'd be surprised.

View from Mission Control post sunrise. Image: Supplied.
View from Mission Control post sunrise. Image: Supplied.

Life in particular comes close to home for Boyd, following a group of six crew members from the International Space Station as they return from a mission on Mars.

"It's pretty close. Things like a combination of diverse crew, that's how it is and where the plant labs are from," she says.

"The exercise stuff and movements that they do on the treadmill where they are bungeed onto it is exactly how it is too, otherwise you'd float away because of gravity. The crew have to exercise for two and a half hours every single day to avoid muscle loss."

The ISS itself was also pretty accurate, save for its size which was augmented. "They had a lot of extra budget!" she jokes.

Aware that die-hard fans will immediately notice any inconsistencies, most films now will bring space experts on set to consult to ensure they get things as accurate as they can.

Image: Supplied

As a spokesperson for the DVD release of Life, Boyd knows a few people who worked closely with director Daniel Espinosa.

"They had a European expert who worked with NASA, he's retired now but he was on set every single day and constantly there being able to correct them in real time and had the directors asking lots of questions," she says.

"There was also an aerospace medicine physician who was there quite a bit and gave medical input into the film and movements, things like the floating and bobbing and tucking feet into things as they move around as they do in the film."

Some things however are altered slightly for the sake of entertainment.

"You can't have all super accurate stuff other it would be boring! It actually takes an hour and a half to get a space suit on, so you've got to get the balance between realistic and entertaining," she says.

Image: Supplied.

The "horror" aspect of Life's plot comes from a soil sample from Mars the crew are returning with in the hope it contains evidence of extraterrestrial life. Exobiologist Hugh Derry manages to revive a cell from the sample which grows into a multi-celled organism dubbed "Calvin".

Calvin quickly gets out of control and the crew fight to contain it.

So is there really life on Mars?

"All the missions on Mars look for that and they have found science to support microbial life," says Boyd.

"There are currently two roamers on the surface and six orbiters from different countries and even more missions that will go in 2020.

Image: Life

"You can only go every two years because of the orbits which is why you only hears missions to Mars every few years."

With limited chances, things are carefully planned. Big missions are planned for 2020 and we could see private companies planning to send missions in the late 2020s and NASA even hoping to be sending people in the 2030s.


"Tech always gets better though time, so we will hopefully find out more. Right now it's all about figuring how to live on Mars, which given its environment and location is the most realistic planet we're looking at for exploration," she says.

As for whether Boyd hopes to be on one of those missions?

"I leave that to my super human colleagues, i'm happy with my day job," she says.

What might appear to be a male dominated sector is actually anything but.

Image: Supplied

"It's pretty half and half and in the control room it can even be all girls depending on what the shift roster is. It's a really good mix," she says.

"You're there to work and gender doesn't really come into it. Whatever your nationality, age or gender you're there to get the job done and keep the astronauts safe."

She has just two words for any females considering careers in space or in other STEM areas - do it.

"It's the best thing you can do. I studied engineering and working in the mining industry. It's super versatile and you can go into anything you like. It's not just people in lab coats - you can pick any field to go into from it as it gives you relevant skills for any job," she says.

"Engineering in particular is problem solving so it's not even whether you know how to do something, it's knowing you can figure it out."

Life is available now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital.