When the renowned astrophysicist filmed his cameo in the pilot, EP Craig Shapiro asked why he agreed to appear on the show, since Tyson no doubt receives millions of offers. “He said he liked the project because it took science and the scientists seriously and their work was treated as serious work and not just a throwaway plot point, and that the scientists were very human and were not robots in a lab somewhere,” Shapiro tells EW. “He really appreciated that. I appreciated him appreciating that.”
Salvation, which premiered last Wednesday, follows tech billionaire Darius Tanz (Santiago Cabrera) and MIT grad student Liam Cole (Charlie Rowe) team up with the government to prevent an asteroid from colliding with Earth in six months. While this sounds like the makings of a science fiction blockbuster, the writers endeavored to ground the story in as much real science as possible.
“We like to say this isn’t a science fiction show. This is a science fact show,” says Shapiro. “We take the science super seriously, and we try to do as much research as we can and bring reality to it.”
EP Liz Kruger adds, “90 percent of what we do is based on the actual science of today, and 10 percent is us trying to advance that science, and that’s where the fiction part comes in.”
“An existential threat or extinction-level event, these are things that are real, they’re not fake, and we really wanted to explore the reality of it,” Kruger continues. “It’s a show about how the world reacts to an asteroid coming. [We wanted] to put real people at the center of it, to see the ordinary world before the world gets destroyed, to keep the secret the first season and not go straight to the disaster movie paradigm, but to really play the reality of the slow-burn of a small group of people knowing and trying to solve the problem scientifically.”
In order to achieve this goal, Shapiro and Krueger did tons of research and consulted with astrophysicist Phil Plait, who is known as the Bad Astronomer and reads every Salvation script, and one of Kruger’s friends who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both of these people helped the writers comprehend the scientific concepts in the show, especially when it came to how to stop the asteroid from hitting Earth.
“You can either break it up or you can knock it off course,” says Kruger, with Shapiro explaining that they can either use a kinetic impactor to do the former or a gravity tractor to accomplish the latter. However, the problem then becomes, how will either one of those devices reach the asteroid in time? And that’s where the aforementioned 10 percent comes in.
On the show, Darius and Liam decide to build an electromagnetic propulsion drive, which is a theoretically impossible thruster that could possibly cut the space travel time. The EmDrive is a real invention that NASA successfully tested in a vacuum in 2015; however, you can’t build one on the show’s timetable and it’s still unclear how it could possibly work since it breaks Newton’s Third Law. That’s where the writers took liberties, both with the timeline and and how the thruster functions.
“The one thing we’ve done is that we’ve compressed the timeline just for dramatic effect,” says Shapiro. Kruger adds, “Since nobody has solved the EmDrive, our science is a little speculative. So, we had to get creative and come up with a fictional way to crack the problem. Again, the foundation for it is real.”
Will Darius and Liam actually be able to pull off this impossible device? Well, that’s supposed to be the fun of the next few episodes. “The fact that we are on the cusp of amazing things that can change history, that’s very personal and that’s not just science and technical. That’s very exciting and these are huge moments for our characters if they can pull this off and build the technology to save the planet,” says Shapiro.
Salvation airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.