Producers pulled all the stops in the highly anticipated miniseries Mars, debuting Monday night on the National Geographic Channel. The $20 million, six-part television event pulled together an A-list team from the worlds of Hollywood and the scientific community: We’re talking about Oscar-winning producers Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Justin Wilkes sitting in the same room and talking about Mars with people like science writer Stephen Petranek, astronaut Mae Jemison, aeronautics engineer Bobby Braun, and many others.
The producers blend science fiction with reality to portray what a crewed mission to Mars will look like in the near-future mixed with real-world commentary and interviews from today’s leading space and engineering experts.
And in the interest of providing people with something that can still qualify as “entertainment,” Mars does not shy away from taking dramatic liberties that come at the price of scientific accuracy, interspersing a fake crewed mission with real-world commentary from leading engineers.
NP: When I first heard about the concept for Mars, I was admittedly very skeptical about how this would turn out. Talking about traveling to Mars through a narrative of fiction almost never goes well. But I thought the first episode actually did a good job to bring to attention the types of obstacles and issues that are big for NASA, SpaceX, and other companies looking to get to the Red Planet — like the lack of Martian atmosphere that makes the descent to the planet such a dangerous move.
KM: It’s an interesting concept, treating the 2016 “flashbacks” as non-fiction, using cameos with the biggest names in the real-life journey to Mars like Elon Musk. I hope that they keep that balance with the rest of the episodes, because the future they’ve extrapolated can get a bit cheesy. I think in order to be successful as an academic tool and not just a source of entertainment, the series will have to be a little more economical with the “dramatic liberties,” as you put it.
Which isn’t to say the show by definition needs to be drier — Mars is cool! The reason the journey to Mars has captivated so many people is that the science is legit dramatic and high-risk, high-reward on its own terms, so I hope they can tap into that instead of just sensationalizing. One of the real-life challenges they touched on was the immense stress and degradation the astronauts’ bodies will face — but it was kind of just thrown in as an ominous bullet point to beef up a speech and make everything seem more dire while also making the characters seem more heroic. Granted, it was just the first episode, but I’d really like to see them work in some scientifically valid takes — not just on the more well-known narratives like loss of bone density, but on things like the challenges of organ regeneration in space, and how to cope in a vacuum without incoming medical resources. For instance, how do you hope they’ll handle the radiation issue?
NP: As you know, I’ve been harping on space radiation being the single biggest obstacle keeping us from sending people to Mars. It’s an issue that not even Elon Musk will fully address — and he and SpaceX are targeting to send the first humans to Mars by 2024 or 2025. How they’re going to keep those kinds of radiation levels from decimating the body is still a complete mystery. And it’s not just about the trip to Mars. Astronauts will need to be protected from the sun’s rays while they live and work on the Red Planet. If the goal is to establish a permanent human presence on Mars, it needs to be with the idea that we can live healthily and happily on the planet.
Speaking of health, that’s another issue I had with the premiere. The crew commander for the mission gets injured, but works to keep the extent of his injuries a secret from the rest of the crew and from ground control. Not only does this seem impossible — I would imagine the first astronauts to head to Mars would be completely wrapped in medical devices that measured vitals constantly — but it’s also impractical. Would an astronaut really work to keep problems with his/her health hidden from his team? Almost certainly not. Punting those problems down the road poses an enormous risk to the rest of the and forces them to potentially deal with much worse later on. I get putting forth something like this for the purposes of drama and suspense, but this does a disservice to astronauts as a whole and makes it seem the mental and physical prowess of those men and women are matched by a cavalier attitude.
KM: I felt the same way about the scene where they essentially begin hiking across Mars. I dunno what kind of rad spacesuits we’ll be working with in 2033, so I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it came off a bit cavalier. I did, however, appreciate the fact that they made it pretty clear that, whether or not the mission was successful, the team wasn’t really expecting to come back. The first generation of Mars colonists won’t be travelers who live there a few years and then go back and forth — when they leave Earth, they’ll need to do it with the understanding that they’re never coming back, since, even if they all survive, the distance and resources inherent to the whole thing makes a return journey just not feasible. So I was glad to not see a romanticized We’ll see you in X years! narrative, though of course the idea of leaving Earth never to return isn’t exactly lacking in drama either.
This probably won’t happen because it’s not the most scientific or animated thread in the plot, but I’d actually be interested in getting a bit more context about how the future supposedly arrived at the entity they call the International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF). Utopian organizations that have united all available civilizations are a pretty common optimistic sci-fi trope (see: Star Trek), but as of 2016, we already have the seeds of global cooperation — Russians and Americans coordinating on the International Space Station (well, sort of), new space laws meant to foster inter-country collaboration, private spaceflight companies working in tandem with NASA, and so on. I’d like to see them connect those dots to their 2033 timeline.
NP: For sure. I actually loved how they spent a bit of time explaining what SpaceX is currently doing by bringing rocket boosters back to Earth for a safe landing after a launch , and explaining why reusability is such an important part of making future space travel work.
It was especially clever how they let the footage of the June 2015 SpaceX explosion unfold — making it very clear that we have a long ways to go before we fully figure out how all of this is going to go.
Mars is fascinating, and it arrives at a time when the prospect of humans going to the Red Planet has transcended the realm of possibility to inevitability. I think the real thing will possess fewer histrionics, but will be no less an achievement of staggering proportions.
Photos via National Geographic