Behind the Scenes: Ad Astra

Behind the Scenes: Ad Astra
September 17, 2019

Guy Chriqui, a senior research scientist at Lockheed Martin, spoke with Laura Fooks, a Lockheed Martin communications employee, about what it’s like to be a science consultant on a feature film (spoiler alert – Guy has consulted on two!) and if humanity will ever make it to Mars.

FOOKS: First off, what got you interested in engineering?

CHRIQUI: Originally, I was always into science fiction and stuff. In high school I joined a competitive robotics team. Essentially, I realized it was a sport that I could easily go pro at, and it was a reasonable thing to continue and make a profession out of. I just kind of kept with it.

I didn't think I was going to be an engineer before that, and then I got into robots and got super stoked on robots, and went to engineering school for undergrad … Here I am, 15 years later.

FOOKS: I saw that you mentor a lot of students in FIRST Robotics. What have you learned from the students you mentor?

CHRIQUI: Patience is the number one thing I’ve learned. But, more than that, it's the same program I was in, and it's something that I got a lot out of, and I absolutely believe in giving back to the things that made you who you are.

As an engineer, you have your specialties, but the real thing that you learn is how to systematically solve problems. You're always adding to your toolbox. I really drive that home with the students.

FOOKS: That’s a good life skill.

CHRIQUI: Yeah, and most of my students don't go on to be engineers, so that's the most interesting part — just driving home strong work ethic and to remain calm and collected when things don't seem to work out, understanding that failure can be okay, and all of those lessons that you kind of have to experience [for yourself].

FOOKS: OK, so let’s switch gears a bit here. I saw that "Ad Astra" actually wasn't your first time consulting on a movie. How'd you get involved in that?

CHRIQUI: I started working on this movie "Big Hero 6" from a random email. I used to volunteer with the robotics team when I was in graduate school in Los Angeles, and I got an email from some guys who said they were working on the movie. I grew up in L.A., so it isn't that out-of-the-blue to get an email from people working on a movie or TV show or something. They were like, "We're writing a movie about a kid who builds robots, and we want to talk to some kids about robots.” It turns out they were the screenwriters for the "Monsters, Inc.” movies and "The Incredibles" and stuff like that.


CHRIQUI: They had quite the résumés. They came in and spent like an afternoon with my students, and were asking all these questions, and I was walking around and they were like, "Whoa, you actually know a lot about this," and asked if I wanted to help them with the movie. I said sure. I didn't have anything better to do with my time.

FOOKS: Sure, why not! What happened then?

CHRIQUI: Eventually, I was telling them what would be in a robot lab, or how to add authenticity to a certain design when you're speaking about it. I was answering questions like, “If we have a bookshelf in the lab, what would be an important book to see?” And helping with naming the technologies they created.

Guy Chriqui

FOOKS: That sounds amazing. It's neat to hear how you spoke into the movie’s authenticity.

CHRIQUI: Yeah, it was a really cool experience, and it was awesome being able to use my really deep technical knowledge for something non-technical.

FOOKS: So when you met with the "Ad Astra" film team, what were they most interested in learning about?

CHRIQUI: It was interesting. We spent a lot of time with them. We showed them some stuff, and the things they were most excited about were basic facts about space that I kind of took for granted. We showed them pictures of the surface of other planets and explained how probes went to Venus and shared about other human space exploration missions.

Someone mentioned the fact that the universe is expanding, and they asked, "Well, how do you know that?” and a coworker — Samantha Edgington — told them, "I helped measure it.”  She broke down this insane experiment that she did in graduate school and succinctly explained it and got all these guys to understand it in two minutes. That’s how you know someone's really smart — when they can take something super complicated and break it down like that.

FOOKS: That’s incredible.

CHRIQUI: You could see the team’s excitement in learning all about space, and that was pretty cool. And then being able to tie it in with Lockheed Martin … explaining how every single thing that's been to Mars has been influenced by Lockheed Martin. Or [nearly] every high-definition image of the sun has been taken by an instrument built in the building that we were standing in.

FOOKS: I'm sure it felt good to leave that conversation knowing you really helped influence some mindsets. Did anything surprise you?

CHRIQUI: They were interested so much in the science, but they also wanted to know how everything looked. They were real visual people, and that’s the language that resonated with them. We showed them photos and a video of some Apollo something astronauts, like, falling over on the moon.

We talked about everything from nuclear technologies and space elevators to moon buggies.

They asked good questions like, "How do we get past the moon? How do we send a rocket to Mars? How do we send a rocket further than Mars?”

FOOKS: What’s your take on humanity’s progress in that area? Do you think we’ll end up colonizing Mars or other planets?

CHRIQUI: I think we have to. There used to be a billion people on Earth and we’re still growing and having longer life expectancies and there just isn't enough space. So either you get people off the planet, or you figure out some other very novel solution.

It’s kind of how humans work, right? I think humans are naturally explorers, and we idolize other explorers like Marco Polo and Amerigo Vespucci. We gravitate toward figuring out what else is out there and how we can get there.