The very real science behind 'The Expanse'

Mar 13, 2017

Imagine for a moment that we’ve colonized Mars and the asteroid belt. We mine the asteroid belt for ice and minerals and live — not always peacefully — in different factions, split up across the solar system.

You’re basically sketching the backdrop for SyFy’s thriller “The Expanse.” But details in the show, based on an ongoing book series by Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey), look a little different from other space-based dramas. For one, there’s no instantaneous communication. Spaceships don’t have artificial gravity, and they can’t turn on a dime like fighter jets.

As another example, when drinks are poured in the show, the liquid spins precariously to get into the glass. “I think it's one of the first science fiction shows that’s bothered to make a little moment out of the Coriolis effect,” says executive producer Naren Shankar. “That was a consequence of the spin gravity of Ceres station, where that thing was set.”

In fact, unlike many other sci-fi thrillers, the universe portrayed in “The Expanse” is based firmly in real science — a concerted effort by the book’s authors and one maintained in the show. The result is that in “The Expanse,” spaceships aren’t sleek and responsive, and space isn’t sexy — it’s downright inhospitable. “The issues of air and water and just protection from that environment are constantly an issue in the show, Shankar says.

In the first episode, a spaceship changes course by essentially flipping over. Shankar realizes that’s not the usual depiction of spaceflight in movies and TV. “Everything, I think traditionally, was modeled over you know, World War II fighter engagements in the Pacific,” he says. “And so everybody thinks that spacecraft change direction like planes do.”

In reality, he says, rockets only work in one direction. “So, if you're speeding up one way, in order to slow down, you’ve got to point the rocket in the other direction.”

Another thing you don’t see on the show? Artificial gravity, in the sci-fi sense. “We wanted to have that sort of realistic, near-future feel,” says co-author Franck, who’s also a producer on the show. Instead, when characters are standing “normally,” the show depicts their ships accelerating, for example, indicating that the people inside are under thrust.

“One of the things that always bugged me on other shows is they'd have artificial gravity, and the only thing anyone ever uses that for is so that they can walk around in their spaceships,” Franck says.

“Whereas, if you have the ability to create gravity fields out of nothing, that is literally a humanity-changing technology that should have effects on everything you do.”

In fact, technology is almost mundane in “The Expanse,” a humming backdrop for the daily lives of space inhabitants. “The focus of this show is about the character drama and the geopolitics and a million other things that are going on,” Shankar says. “Technology is there, but we oftentimes don't focus on it directly.”

By way of explanation, Franck says that he and co-author Abraham drew inspiration from the 1979 movie “Alien.” “The two characters in there, Parker and Brett … they’re just janitors, they’re just mechanics,” he explains.

“The fact that they fly on a gigantic mining ship through space is irrelevant. Their job is fixing leaky pipes and wiring, and they complain about how many shares they get of the bonus. We wanted to write about those guys, those two guys.”

Despite all of the show’s detailed, science-based visuals, there’s one fact that Franck says won’t be doled out: The exact year the series takes place. He suggests that’s because space nerds are spoilsports.

“The minute you put a year on things, people start counting backwards and figuring out when all the various things would have had to happen to set that up,” he says.

“And the other thing that they do, is, they go and they find their astronomy app, and they figure out the relative positions of all the all the solar system bodies at the date you claim things are happening. And then they start doing the math to see if your ship travel times are right.”

Instead, when you’re watching “The Expanse,” just consider for a moment how relatable its circumstances already seem.

“It feels like this is the way it could actually be, because we have adopted into the narrative everything that Ty and Daniel put in the books about the hostility of the environment, the difficulty of getting from place to place, the vast scale that you actually have to traverse to get from one planet to another,” Shankar says.

"I think that in aggregate, that makes everything feel like, ‘Wow, maybe it could actually end up this.'"

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday


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