Listen, I am very much here for the whole “your typical emotional human drama but in space” aspect of Away. That’s what I signed up for coming in and it is very satisfying for my melodrama-loving heart. It’s a Jason Katims show, after all. But I also love straight-up space shit. And “Vital Signs” really gives us the most straight-up space shit we’ve seen on Away thus far. Okay, that whole spacewalk situation was cool, but people are talking about slingshot scenarios here. It doesn’t get much more Dramatic Interpretation of Space than slingshot scenarios.
So why do we need slingshot scenarios? Well, something else has gone terribly wrong for the Atlas crew, as is tradition. They’re three weeks out from their scheduled Mars landing and today is the day the Pegasus is supposed to land on the Red Planet. Pegasus has been briefly mentioned a few times leading up to this moment, but to refresh: It’s the freighter that NASA launched with all of the supplies the Atlas crew needs to live on Mars. Thanks to some handy-dandy expositional questions from characters, we learn that this secondary rocket is necessary because all of the supplies the crew needs would’ve been way too heavy to take on the Atlas and we also learn that they couldn’t launch Pegasus any earlier (and guarantee it was on Mars) because it would be too risky to have it sit there with dust storms, etc. Three weeks out from Atlas landing is the only way to do it.
There’s a lot of pressure on Pegasus safely arriving on Mars, not just to the success of the mission, but sitting on that freighter is a new water system and our astronauts are thirsty as hell. If Pegasus doesn’t make it to the surface — it could bounce off the atmosphere, burn up during entry, explode at any point, just so many ways this could go wrong — the astronauts will have, at absolute best, ten weeks of a functioning water supply.
Houston loses contact with Pegasus after it enters Mars’ atmosphere and can never regain it. For all intents and purposes, Pegasus is gone. Quick question: Does anything go right for Atlas, like even once?
Ground starts working on contingency plans immediately, but mostly are like “oh wow, this is bad.” There is a second freighter, Pegasus 2, already on its way to Mars, but it won’t arrive for another five months, well outside of the window the crew has with their current water situation. But don’t discard Pegasus 2 just yet: It’s Matt who comes up with a plan to, ahem, slingshot the Atlas around Mars and have it dock with Pegasus 2 in transit. There are some obvious cons to this plan: Having two speeding objects try to dock in space is difficult and risky and, oh yeah, it means the Atlas will never land on Mars. It is, however, the best chance at keeping the crew alive, which is, of course, Matt’s number one objective. He’s gotta save his wife!!
The heads of each country’s space organizations hash it out and it’s the China National Space Administration who are most vocal about rejecting Matt’s plan: Landing on Mars was the main objective and they would rather their taikonaut “die a hero on Mars than return home a coward.” That is an extremely blunt way of putting it, and NASA counters with the equally blunt reminder that if the astronauts land on Mars this way, they’ll be digging their own graves. They send the astronauts the slingshot plan.
Up on the Atlas, it is also the representative from CSNA who is most adamantly against giving up Mars. Lu’s quick to point out that this plan must have come from Matt: “He’s just like you, undermining the mission as long as his wife comes home.” Lu’s clearly still insulted that Emma said she should’ve gone home out loud (sure, she was in serious physical distress, but the heart wants what the heart wants). Emma stands her ground and reiterates her position that her main job is to keep her crew alive. She also pretty much tells Lu she can go to hell for blaming this on Matt. There’s no way he had anything to do with it. She takes Ram and Kwesi to command to start rerouting the flight path, where even they, the two most loyal to her, admit to how devastating this all is.
And then she goes to her pod and listens to a message from Matt in which he tells her it was his idea. What a dummy! She imagines Matt convincing her that this is the right choice, that if her crew survives then she isn’t a failure, and that if they were to die horrible deaths on Mars it would be the end of the entire program. Of course this imaginary conversation ends with Matt admitting he couldn’t just let his wife die because, hello, that’s really what this whole thing is about and everyone knows it.
Meanwhile, Lu isn’t giving up. She and Misha are working on the water system — his sight is almost completely gone at this point — and surprisingly, Misha admits he feels a bit of relief about going home. He wants to see his grandkids again, doesn’t Lu want to see her son? Her answer is very Lu: Of course she does, but she also didn’t come here to fail. Let’s be honest, space buddies: This is the attitude the commander of this mission should share as well. Lu never forgets the enormity of the mission as a whole and has fully accepted all the sacrifices that come with it. She’s not ready to turn around without even talking about trying something else just yet.
Lu on the other hand, Lu has that passion to succeed. During her time with Misha, she watches how without his sight he can still diagnose problems and understand the water system by listening and by feeling. And then Lu has one of those great made-for-TV epiphanies: There’s a way they can find out if Pegasus survived entry into Mars’s atmosphere without any visual confirmation.
There’s a rover on Mars called InSight that has a seismometer meant to track earthquakes on Mars. If Pegasus broke through the atmosphere, its sonic boom would definitely show up on InSight. This wouldn’t tell them if it exploded upon impact with the surface or landed thousands of miles off course, but if there’s no sonic boom, they’ll know for sure Pegasus didn’t make it. If there is one, at least there is some hope. To be able to access Pegasus, they’ll need command codes, which are only given to commanders and their number twos. Lu and Misha take this idea to Ram and Kwesi. The last time Ram was asked to undermine Emma (during her dehydration meltdown), he was plagued with anxiety over it. This time, however, Mars is on the line.
Just as they’re accessing Pegasus, Emma pops in. She is not pleased to see them going behind her back (she’s most disappointed in you, Scarecrow, er, Ram) and she thinks it’s dangerous to go forward with this plan knowing at most all it could offer is the faintest glimmer of hope that Pegasus is there, not a confirmation. And then Lu really lets her have it. The entire program is one built on hope. That’s all this mission is and at one point, Lu reminds her, Emma embodied that spirit. What happened to her? What happened to the woman who “leapt off the side of a spaceship with nothing to cling to but hope?” she asks. “I don’t wanna die. I really don’t,” she says to her crewmates, “but I’m willing to die for hope.” Now, that cheesy emotional speech, excuse me, Speech, sounds like one a commander should be giving to her crew, not the other way around. If this mission is a success, the world has Lu to thank.
Emma’s like, Whoa great speech, yes let’s do this, and Lu gets to work on InSight. Guys, of course there’s a sonic boom. You didn’t think we’d come all this way to just turn around did you? We’re going to Mars.
• I really need some flashbacks to Atlas training, especially when it comes to Emma. At some point she was selected as the best candidate not only to represent NASA, but to be the commander. Sure, we’ve seen her risk her life on the spacewalk and take care of her crew even in the most extreme situations, but where’s the real leadership here? Her heart just doesn’t feel like it’s ever in it. It took a Big Speech from Lu to get her to wake up even just a little. We’ve been told repeatedly that this has been her dream since she was a child, but we’ve yet to see the kind of passion from Emma that we do from Lu.
• Of course Lu is driven by much more than being successful in her mission. She, like so many people, is driven by wanting to make her parents, especially her father, proud. We learn that Lu’s father was disappointed to have a daughter, but was the one who introduced her to the wonders of Mars. All she wants is to make him proud, but unfortunately he has dementia and doesn’t even remember that he has a daughter. It’s very tragic, but that’s a prerequisite on Away. It does push Lu to talk to Misha about his own daughter and his quest for forgiveness: “Tell her she makes you proud, that’s all she wants to hear.”
• Even Ram calls out Emma for not being dedicated to the mission and tells everyone that Emma repeated her desire to go home privately to him. You know people are fed up when Ram is dumping on Emma.
• Kwesi was hopeful that if he could grow life on Mars he could start chipping away at people not taking climate change on Earth seriously. A truly noble quest. Get this man and his plants on Mars!
• Um … you guys … did you see that smile Melissa COULD NOT CONTROL when she got Matt’s text telling her that she’s “the best?” That girl is in loooooove.
• With everything so out of control in Lex’s life, she’s looking to remove the one unknown that she can get an answer to: She decides to get tested to see if she inherited her dad’s CCM. That’s a big step and also a lot for everyone to handle during all this Pegasus nonsense!