In the 2015 film The Martian, based on the novel of the same title by Andy Weir, astronaut Mark Watney struggles for survival after his team is forced to evacuate Mars due to a violent dust storm—leaving him behind after mistakenly presuming he is dead. The story highlights how a manned mission to Mars will critically depend on a reliable oxygen supply. Through shrewd engineering and improvising, Watney manages to gather and create the critical supplies needed to survive on Mars until the next mission arrives: food, water, shelter, and oxygen. Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, plants potatoes in a modified room where he waters them by burning some of the mission’s fuel supply of hydrazine with oxygen (O2).
While the “normal” supplies of food, water and shelter were created through innovative engineering, establishing a steady oxygen supply required more specialized tools. Thankfully, the mission came equipped with the “oxygenator,” which took compressed carbon dioxide (CO2) and “passed it over a zirconia electrolysis cell to pull oxygen atoms off the CO2.”1 While this sounds closer to science fiction than science, the truth is that NASA is implementing such a concept on its upcoming mission to Mars.