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How Netflix's Lost in Space goes old-school to find the future

The family-in-space saga features tech that's probably familiar to most of us today. Its executive producers share why.

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Sure, Robot may be a little too futuristic, but the rest of the technology in Lost in Space you'll find pretty familiar. 

Netflix

There's plenty to like about Netflix's Lost in Space, a series streaming now about the most unlucky family ever in television history. One of the things that makes for great watching is the technology, which is familiar yet advanced enough to suggest what we could see 30 years from now.

I chatted with Lost in Space executive producers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless to find out just how carefully crafted and thought out the tech in the show was, and how much of what you see on screen is real.

Some spoilers ahead, so if you haven't yet finished binging the series (and you should go do that now).

spoiler alert

The tech in Lost in Space feels like it evolved from current technology. How much of what's taking place today influenced what's on the show?
Burk Sharpless: Even though the show is placed 30 years in the future, we wanted it to be very relatable to people nowadays.

There are two different technologies. One is the Robinsons', their Earth technology. The second is that robot alien technology. And in terms of the Earth technology, we were very inspired by NASA and tried to imagine what next-generation NASA technology would be.

To that end, we definitely geared more towards almost old-school mechanical switches rather than touchscreens that you might have on your smartphone now. Because these days, as you know, technology will fail. If anything, in our show things will break and go wrong.

So we wanted the technologies to reflect the fact that it'd have to be prepared for anything to go wrong, so we almost had an old-fashioned view of technology. The ISS and the space shuttle had a lot of older technology on board because it was more stable. The last thing you want to have in space is having your computer crash, because then everybody dies.

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There are lots of mechanical switches in the ship controls (as opposed to touchscreens).

Netflix

With everyone using radios and wrist computers to communicate, do smartphones still exist in the future?
Sharpless: You know, there's a moment in the first episode where Penny has a smartphone from Earth and it's packed with photos and memories and books. Our thought was now that everybody has a smartphone on Earth, that's probably something we don't think is ever going to change, right? 

The wrist computers you see them have, what we tried to do is think of what would you want if you were going to be in an action situation, so we were inspired by some of the stuff we've seen in outdoor magazines such as Popular Mechanics and to give it sort of an outdoorlike, going-to-Everest kind of things the mountaineers used.

Our outdoor tent also had sort of a rugged look, in the color orange and stuff. We wanted to give that sense of adventure and survival gear. You see a lot of outdoor gear for our tent. Our Chariots are all based on what we would see today but they have electric engines and solar power. But the insides, the controls are very much what we see today.

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The Chariots you see in the show are real, but run on petrol engines. Keep an out eye for an exhaust pipe -- something you won't see in a real EV.

Netflix

So that leads to the question, did you build actual Chariots?
Matt Sazama: Yes we did. Which it turns out is very difficult to have them run properly. The Chariots were built from scratch from the ground up. We did not use an existing car or a chassis or anything. We learned that car companies actually take many years and many rounds of R&D to make a car and we've built ours in a matter of months. We did have some challenges in filming it but they were pretty amazing machines. 

Sharpless: The cast didn't get to drive that much so what you see on screen is not them driving but stunt drivers because they're too fast. A lot of the shots you did see were the real Chariots. We did have a few shots that were digital, but a lot of what you see is real.

How fast did the Chariots go?
Sazama: It was like 50 or 60 miles an hour. And we didn't mean for them to be able to be that fast. But they could and did. I remember our showrunner Zack [Estrin] was actually shocked at how quickly they went. 

Sharpless: Of course, they were actually rumbling combustion engines. We did not have actual electric engines, which is funny. If you look closely, the Chariots have exhaust pipes, which of course electric cars would not have.

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High-altitude balloons are a real tech that make an appearance in the series.

Netflix

How much of the science in Lost in Space is real? It feels real enough to a casual viewer.
Sharpless: We used science as a starting place for every idea on what the Robinsons confronted. What we wanted to do was to keep the show relatable enough on sort of a ground level. So the audience could enjoy that sort of "what would I do" question. After all, you know the show hearkens back to the Swiss Family Robinson, right? So there's something kind of fun about trying to figure out what would you do in that situation. 

To actually bring an audience into that is to start with real science, so certainly it has to be something that we knew about, we had read about, we were excited about. And we designed it kind of what like we thought that would be a version of that 30 years in the future.

Other things, and I know that this isn't exactly tech, but the stuff about the black hole being in the rotation around the sun and a binary black hole system, that's based on things that astronomers believe actually exists and so these are the things we can sort of go through in the show.

What about the Jupiter? The saucer design is definitely not something we typically associate with current spacecraft. Is it more of a callback to the original Lost in Space?
Sharpless: Part of making a show like this is finding that sort of intercession between the pleasure of the audience and the science. And the Jupiter was ultimately a spacecraft that was designed for a callback to the original and to fulfill sort of like the fun and the needs of a family.

So, obviously, the Jupiter would fly just fine in space. The way in which it launches, the VTOL [vertical take-off and landing] aspect is definitely not the way an astrophysicist would envision it. However, we will say that in episode eight, the sequence with the destruction of venting engines, all of the business of trying to make a ship lighter, and all of the business of the different kinds of methane-based fuels that they used, well we need quite a bit of research for that. I think we used to jump back to the older NASA days to create a fun experience for the audience.

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The Jupiter spacecraft from Lost in Space.

Netflix

But in the show, the Jupiters don't exactly jump through space?
Sazama: We definitely designed Jupiter to be an interplanetary craft rather than an interstellar craft, which is why we have the big Resolute mothership. That ship is actually capable of jumping through space to go to other planets.

The actual Jupiter craft is designed to go like from a planet to a moon or fly around in an atmosphere of an actual planet, which we thought was more realistic than having an utmost craft like that to be able to go anywhere in the stars.

The idea was that Jupiters were kinda like campers, that even every family would take their Jupiter and at the end of a journey, would become the centerpiece of their homestead. This is why the ships have the pop-outs and extend out to make their ship a little bigger. Think of them as space Winnebagos.

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Technically, this lift-off isn't actually realistic.

Netflix

The show itself features both real science and magic science, especially toward the last few episodes. How real is the magic science?
Sazama: We felt like asking audiences to believe that the Robinsons and Earth in 2046 had interstellar travel was too big of a jump, and now that everybody has watched the show, you can see that we didn't go there. The ability to travel quickly is an interstellar matter and actually is a big science fiction leap like you might see in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It's definitely well beyond our ability, particularly the "alien engine" that you see in episode 10. While it's not magic, the science that it's using it is so far beyond humans that it's very hard for us to understand. It's also a bit of a nod to the book and movie of Contact, if we're to come in contact with really mind-boggling alien technology, that's how it would be.

Sharpless: Also in the show, we've used gravity as one of those things to differentiate between a thing that human technology could achieve in 30 years and something that's way beyond anything that we could do probably in 300 years, so you have to look to aliens for help.

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