“I've been in this business for 29 years, so to find projects that are authentic and unique is hard,” Hilary Swank tells me. Away, now streaming on Netflix, was that rare jewel: a heartwarming family drama that showed real reactions to the (mostly) real situations playing out onscreen. Think This Is Us or Friday Night Lights, just with more space travel.
Swank plays Emma Green, the commander of the first-ever mission to Mars. It's dangerous—and to go, she must leave behind her teen daughter (Talitha Eliana Bateman) and husband (Josh Charles) for three years. That dynamic is the heart of the show's drama: How do you navigate being a good partner or parent when you're literally on a different planet? And is there anything we non-space-travelers can learn from that experience?
Here, we invited Hilary Swank, showrunner and writer Jessica Goldberg, and Karen Nyberg, the real-deal astronaut who helped Swank with research for the show, to discuss.
Glamour: To start, tell me what drew you to Away?
Jessica Goldberg: I had never seen a working mother portrayed like this onscreen. A woman can love her work and her family equally, and I felt so excited to tell that story truthfully. Also, we were already in a divisive moment internationally when I got the show. The knee-jerk reaction seems to be in television to write dystopian bleak programs, but I wanted to be a part of something that imagined the world coming together.
Hilary Swank: [I appreciated] the idea of being a commander on a mission to Mars where the drama isn't that she's a woman—she's the person best suited for the job. The drama is around normal stuff, like building trust. You have these human beings who are all on this journey toward a common goal with no borders. Jessica, you talked so beautifully in one of the episodes you wrote about hope and how it is really everything. It's what we all can understand and relate to in life, no matter your gender, no matter your race, no matter your creed. Hope is what you have to hold on to in order to persevere. This show encapsulated all of these things without forcing it.
Glamour: Karen, as an astronaut, what stuck out to you as being particularly resonant?
Karen Nyberg: When they were showing the family experience before Emma goes to Mars, I was tearing up. I was feeling what I've felt before I went to space, as well as when my husband [Doug Hurley, who is also an astronaut] went just a couple months ago. I think the show really captured that. I felt it as a memory. My son is 10 now. He was only three when I went for my six-month-long flight. I didn't have to explain things quite the same, but there was still things to deal with.
Hilary: Karen, if you wouldn't mind sharing the story you told me…. You don't have to, but I find it really fascinating.
Karen: Yeah, I don't mind sharing it because there was a lot of emotion with it. After my first space shuttle flight, in 2008, I was really eager to go again. Extremely eager. But Doug and I were trying to have a child when I was assigned to the space mission STS-132. I was assigned to the flight and going to do spacewalks…and then I got pregnant. The frustrating part was that my baby was due well before the mission. I had gone to my commander, and we thought I could continue training, have the baby, and then do this mission. We had a plan—we had a backup in case something happened and I couldn't continue training.
And then I was taken off the flight. It was disappointing. But, like most things, it all worked out fine in the end. Peggy Whitson was the chief of the astronaut office at the time, and as soon as I came off maternity leave, she assigned me to a long-duration mission. She took care of me.
Hilary: Didn't they call it a health crisis or something?
Karen: The official word that went out from NASA was that I was removed from the flight for a temporary medical condition. My son wasn't quite so temporary. [Laughs.]
Glamour: One thing that struck me was watching Emma, a mother, trying to parent from space. Karen, you can actually speak to that unique experience.
Karen: I had to travel a lot for training. It was hard, but I had to learn to give up control. Doug was training when we first had my son Jack—for the first 18 months he was training for a space flight, so he was very busy. I was in control of Jack's schedule, what he ate, and any activities he did. So when I was training, I would try to micromanage what was happening in Jack's life. I had to let go of that. By the time I flew in space, I had worked through it.
The key is to have support and people you trust. My husband was home, but he was working. We had an amazing nanny, Lucy, who we just adored, and my mother-in-law helping. When I was in space, my husband and I had very good communication. I could talk to him on the phone every single day. But for a three-year-old, it was a little difficult. I made a video for him every single day on my iPad that I sent home. I had 166 videos saying, "Good night, I love you."
I did prepare myself for something, and I'm glad I did: coming home and him not wanting to come to me as the primary caregiver. And it happened. Jack had spent a lot of time with my mother-in-law. So the first night I was home, he wanted her to put him to bed—not me. Luckily, I prepared myself for that. I told myself, “I haven't been here. I haven't been the motherly figure to him for six months.” It only took a few days, and he was back to coming to me.
Jessica: Now that your son is 10, would it feel harder to go to space?
Karen: I think so. I think it would be a lot harder to go right now than when he was three. I think he was fine with my husband going [a few months ago], but it probably was a little stressful for him. I anticipate it might have been more so if it had been me going this time.
Jessica: When we met, Hilary, one of the things that struck me was that you take care of your father. That resonated with a lot of the themes we were discussing in the writers room, which is: How do you go away when there's someone...
Hilary: Yeah, there was a conversation at one point if we could film the show in Bulgaria or something. At that point I wouldn't have been able to commit because my dad wasn't in a position where I could be on a flight that long as his health advocate. Vancouver quickly became the obvious choice, thankfully, so that I could get back home within three hours.
Jessica: For some reason I've never been able to work in Los Angeles. Nothing shoots here. So I always have to leave my daughter. Luckily, my mother lives a mile down the street, but you do miss things like the tooth fairy. It's amazing how much those little things—a tooth—can really spiral you.
Karen: When I left for space, Jack was at the level where he could take a crayon and draw lines and shapes. When I came home, he was turning those shapes into people. In that amount of time, he had gone from just doodling to actually drawing people. I made a little quilted art piece of his first drawing that he made when I came back, because it was so special. Things like that made me realize the length of time.
Jessica: Would you go to Mars, like Emma?
Karen: It's easy right now to say no because it's not a possibility. I think we're far enough away from that. It's such a commitment. If we were in a position where we were actually doing Mars missions right now, I don't know how I would feel.
Jessica: With COVID, did your experience of being isolated on a ship prepare you for the isolation people are doing now? And the way people are communicating now?
Karen: I was telling Hilary earlier that I don't mind being alone. I don't mind being stuck in my house. That part of being on the space station wasn't challenging. Of course, being away from Doug and Jack was.
One thing we deal with when we're talking to mission control is that when you don't have a face-to-face, all you're doing is talking via the communication loops. You lose that human connection, and you can find yourself getting angry at the other person or thinking, Well, that's a dumb idea. Why are they making me do that? You wouldn't do that if you were in the same room with them. I can imagine that happens with Zoom calls too.
Jessica: Yeah, that makes sense. Did you two talk before the show?
Hilary: Yeah, I spent a lot of time one-on-one with Karen down at mission control. We had a whole day together. I feel like we really got to know one another.
Glamour: Did anything really surprise you?
Hilary: The story she just shared about getting pregnant and not being able to go on that mission really paralleled what Jessica had written in one of my favorite episodes. Also, Karen told me that the press always asks the women, “Oh, what's it going to be like for you when you leave your family?” But they asked 20% of the men that question. It boggles my mind that a man wouldn't feel the same about leaving his family, or that the family doesn't feel the same about losing their dad for a certain amount of time. They do—it's just stereotypes.
Glamour: In the pilot we learn Emma’s husband dreamed of going to space as well but didn’t meet the requirements. I thought it was really beautiful that his reaction was to tell her, “Okay, we’re all in on you.”
Hilary: Karen and her husband, Doug, are both astronauts, so they understand on a deep level what that's like for the other person. Emma is going on this mission, and her husband is left behind, but it's not a masculinity thing. That's not the drama of the story. There's sadness that he's not fulfilling a dream of his, which is understandable, but it's not about her. It's not about how she has to underplay her joy or shining her light in order to make him feel better about himself.
That was a plus for me. That there was this man who was like, “Oh, hell yeah, you're going to go.” Every time I think about that in the through line of the story, how it's woven in, it makes me cry. Josh Charles was an anchor to me. His ability to have understated strength and the way he delivers his lines in support of her…it's so beautiful.
Jessica: To me, it's the sexiest man in the world that can say, “You go.” When we first started thinking about this couple, we were like, “What couples share a vision?” We thought of the Obamas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband. Usually you see a husband get jealous, but what if there was a shared dream at the heart of this love story? It's something I haven't seen a lot of couples portray on television. Karen, you must have that in your marriage?
Karen: Absolutely. I could not have left a three-year-old for six months if my husband wasn't completely on board and supportive. He was fine being the primary caregiver. If he was at all jealous, it wouldn't have worked. He wanted me to reach my dream too. We talked about it when Peggy offered me the six-month flight. I asked, “Should I not go because of our son?” He helped me make the decision to do it.
Glamour: Karen, we talked the experience of mothering from space, but I’d also love to hear from your experience about being a partner as well. Is your marriage dynamic different when you’re so far away?
Karen: Communication is key. We speak every day, and I would still participate in the household. When Doug was in space recently, I was going to make sure the bills got paid and everything. But he had an internet access, so sometimes I would log on and a bill's already been paid. When he had time, he would take care of those things. Another important thing is that when you are gone for that amount of time—and a three-year mission to Mars would be even more so—you have to realize that your family has come up with their own routine and ways of doing things. You have to assimilate back into that and not expect things are going to be exactly how they were when you left.
Hilary: That's like being on a movie set. You leave for six months, things were run a certain way, and you have to reassimilate back in after having a journey with all these other people. Can you imagine going into space without Wi-Fi anymore?
Glamour: Hilary, what do you hope people take away from the show?
Hilary: I feel like the show, now more than ever, resonates because we've all been in this type of isolation. Sometimes our only way of communicating with loved ones is via Zoom. I think we'll have a deeper appreciation for what the crew is going through with missing their loved ones and only being able to have this way of communicating. That deep desire to see your loved one and hope that they're making it through this.
Jessica: I have a 13-year-old daughter, and there's so few things that you can watch with your kid that you enjoy as much as they do. For the first time, she got what I did. That's an amazing thing. Karen, do you experience that feeling with your son?
Karen: He's now old enough to understand it more. He's not interested in being an astronaut and following in our footsteps. He told me one time, a few years ago, “Mom, all you do is go to space and do stupid interviews.” I think seeing Doug go and all the hoopla around that and watching the launch, he's now old enough to feel it and understand it.
Also, that feeling [on the show] of hope and no borders and people just working together…the International Space Station has been doing that for 20 years. It goes beyond politics. It's working together for this common goal. Sometimes I'd be up at the space station and think, Why aren't we all doing this? Don't we all have the same goal? It works so well in exploring space—it's too bad it doesn't translate so easily to other areas.
Jessica: That is something that blew us away, that none of the politics of earth mattered. Can you describe what it's like seeing earth from up there?
Karen: It's more than just what you're seeing; it's what you're feeling as you're looking at it. One morning I was watching the news while eating breakfast, and there was a conflict in Syria at the time. And you know when you're watching the news and you don't fully understand it because you're not there? Later that day I was looking out the window and realized we were right over Syria. I'm looking down and thinking, They're right there. There was this connection I started feeling. Those types of experiences really increased my empathy for others. If everybody could get that feeling, I think it would be a good thing.
Anna Moeslein is the senior editor at Glamour. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Originally Appeared on Glamour