In Netflix’s series Away, American astronaut Emma Green is chasing the stars — er Mars, that is. Created by Andrew Hinderaker, the show follows Green (Hilary Swank) as she leads the first manned mission to the red planet with an international team on board the Atlas. The three-year mission brings Green millions and millions of miles from her teen daughter and NASA engineer husband, who are both still on Earth, tightening and twisting their emotional bonds.
While Emma Green isn’t an actual astronaut — and there hasn’t yet been a manned mission to Mars — Away is loosely based on a true story: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and his year-long expedition on board the International Space Station, the preparation of which was documented in a 2014 Esquire article by Chris Jones also titled “Away” that inspired the series. Kelly broke the record for the longest space mission by an American with his 340-day trip, which took place from 2015 to 2016.
The goal of Kelly’s year-long mission was slightly different than heading to Mars: he was trying to learn more about how the human body responds to long periods of time in space. He and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornieko lifted off on March 27, 2015. Both men tracked the changes in their bodies as they spent 340 days on the ISS. Kelly’s twin brother, Mark Kelly, also an astronaut, remained on the ground so they could compare the physiological changes, according to Space.com.
The mission had a few hiccups, however. A series of cargo ships failed upon launch, leading the astronauts to come close to rationing food, according to a PBS documentary. While up there, Kelly performed three space walks, saved zinnia flowers in a “moldy plant experiment,” and commanded Expeditions 45 and 46. He held press conferences and tweeted from space, surprised by the public’s interest in his mission. He landed back on Earth on March 2, 2016.
Similar to Away’s Green, however, Kelly also grappled with being away from his family just as they needed him the most: Gabby Giffords, his sister-in-law, was shot. Hinderaker told Refinery29 and other reporters during a mid-January set visit that he related to Jones’ article when Jones describes Scott trying to navigate being far from his family during the crisis. “That was really at the core, to me, of the show,” he said. “I said to Jason [Katims] and Matt [Reeves, executive producers] that my partner lives with [a] disease and she was diagnosed when I was away, sort of opening a play, and so that moment was kind of my connection to it.”
While the Esquire article focused on Kelly and his mission, Swank found some inspiration and guidance from Peggy Whitson, a retired NASA astronaut and former NASA chief astronaut who was also the first female commander of the ISS in 2007. While Swank wasn’t able to meet Whitson in person, picking her brain taught Swank “what it means to be a commander and the responsibility that comes with that and how does she shape that in a man’s world,” she explained to Refinery29 during the set visit.
Changing the main character from male to female was a bit of a different experience due to the military background, according to Swank. “There are definitely, I think, different types of hurdles that women go through to gain respect, but as our show starts...there’s a different type of respect there,” she explained. The characters have been working together for two years, and some have more experience in space than others. “It almost transcends gender in a way and becomes about a human being gaining trust,” Swank said.
Swank did some see similarities to her own experience, however. “There are definitely parallels to that between me as a woman and wanting to walk in my strength and not be small in order to have my existence,” she said. “Sometimes it feels that way in the world. So it’s nice to be playing a woman of strength that can do it gracefully.”