The Future of Space Travel: Experts and stars talk National Geographic’s most ambitious series ever
What would life be like on Mars? Countless books, films and television shows have posed the question. Something about the Red Planet has intrigued millions throughout history, but very few people are aware of how close science fiction has been to depicting reality.
The truth is man is not only exceedingly close to walking on Mars, but living and sustaining life upon its dusty shores. The technology to do so has been around for decades. Today, experts are touting it as a possible second home for humans, and the first of our kind could be stepping foot on Mars in the next decade.
At least that’s the view of SpaceX founder and visionary Elon Musk, the man at the forefront of the effort to make mankind an interplanetary species, who thinks mankind will be on Mars by 2025.
It’s this very possibility – or if we believe Musk, certainty – that has inspired the innovative and ground-breaking new six-part series Mars, National Geographic’s most ambitious project of all time.
A seamless blend of a documentary and drama, Mars documents today’s scientific effort to send men to Mars and interweaves it with a story of the first manned mission to Mars in 2033. The finished product is slick, gripping and eye-opening, posing answers to the questions that science is asking today and offering fact-based possibilities for what the future might hold.
“I would say we could, if we chose to, land humans on Mars within ten years.” – Robert Braun, consulting scientist for Mars
Nothing on Mars is outside of the realms of possibility, notes Mars consulting scientist Robert Braun in conversation with TVGuide.co.uk. In fact, he says, “National Geographic has done a fantastic job of making this as realistic and as fact based as possible.”
Braun is an American aerospace engineer and the David and Andrew Lewis Professor of Space Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US. Mars is the first time he has worked on a television show, and he says his main concern was making sure the series adhered strictly to fact and not fiction.
So could the events of the series – which sees six astronauts land a space shuttle on Mars in 2033 – really take place? “Yes [it could happen],” says Braun, “The drama is set in 2033 thereabouts, and that’s actually not that far away. Everything we would need for a mission in 2033 is actually being worked on today.”
“When we talk about reclaiming water on Mars, or when we talk about producing oxygen on Mars, those systems actually have been designed and tested in labs today. So it’s not so hard to take these systems that are in existence today, scale them up for human exploration in say the next ten years.”
Mars Big Thinker, TED speaker and author of How We’ll Live On Mars, the book upon which Mars is loosely based upon, Stephen Petranek, agrees with this assessment. When asked by which year he would be near certain the Mars man-missions had borne fruit, Petranek tells us: “I would be very surprised if we’re not on Mars by 2030, 14 years from now. I think it will actually happen sooner, but it’s kind of unpredictable. I’m almost positive that SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 Heavy rocket with a Dragon capsule on it to Mars in 2018. Every two years after that they will continue to launch another rocket to Mars. Presumably [these would be] cargo supply missions that would set up things for human missions later.”
He’s backed up by some of the world’s most prestigious thinkers and scientists. Elon Musk, who is “the most optimistic man on the planet” according to Petranek, believes mankind will be on Mars by 2025. The more conservative NASA is predicting orbital missions around Mars with the SLS Orion System sometime in the late 2030s.
In truth, both Petranek and Braun believe the real estimated time of arrival on Mars is somewhere in-between. Braun says, “I would say we could, if we chose to, land humans on Mars within ten years. I think a lot of it has to do with the choices we’re making. I think the timings in this show are about right. I would be extremely surprised if the timing in this show is incorrect.”
“It’s science-factual. I think it’s so important that you don’t lose the human element of it.” – Sammi Rotibi, Robert Foucault on Mars
It’s not just the events of Mars that are at the forefront of innovation and technology. The new series employs a slick blend of documentary and drama that has never been employed on television so beautifully before. The documentary follows the world of science as it is today, covering huge moments in today’s mission to make man on Mars a possibility and going behind the scenes at space agencies such as SpaceX. This feeds and informs the fledgling drama, in which the technology upon which scientists are currently working on are put to the test by the members of the first manned spacecraft to Mars.
It was not a format that immediately struck the actors in the series as brilliant. In fact, they shared the same sense of trepidation most feel at doing something revolutionary.
Cosima Shaw, who plays nuclear physicist Leslie Richardson on the series, tells TVGuide.co.uk: “I have to say, my initial reaction when I saw ‘docu-drama’… The way it was described I was just like [heavy sigh] ‘is this what it’s come to?’. But then I saw who was involved [Oscar and Emmy-winning producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer] and I was like okay, this is going to be different.”
John Light, who plays exobotanist and husband of Leslie Dr. Paul Richardson on Mars, adds: “I wondered whether it would jar, whether it would be difficult to take, but by the end of [watching it for the first time]… I’ve never seen that work before, or even that style used before.”
Executive Producer Justin Wilkes goes into further detail about the unique structure of the new series. “It’s a singular narrative. Each scene is building upon the next, whether you’re in a documentary portion or in drama. At a certain point, it should not matter. We’re telling this story that partially takes place in 2016, and partially takes place in 2033.”
While that sounds hard to get our heads around, it is – as Sammi Rotibi, who plays mechanical engineer and roboticist Robert Foucalt on Mars tells us – fundamentally a human story using real-life science. He explains: “It’s science-factual. I think it’s so important that you don’t lose the human element of it. I think is very very important. It’s not about the rockets, it’s about the humans in this situation. Six astronauts, six human beings, going to explore space.”
“We were eating, drinking, thinking, dreaming about space. We even had a karaoke night in Budapest and were singing Bowie songs about space. Now we’re quite good.” – Clementine Poidatz, Amelie Durand on Mars
Getting the difficult and complex balance between drama and documentary was one thing, but another was ensuring the cast’s knowledge of science and space travel was up to scratch in order to prepare for their gruelling new roles.
In order to get the cast up to speed on their space knowledge, which Amelie Durand actor Clementine Poidatz claims was virtually non-existent, Mars brought in Dr Mae C Jemison, the former Endeavour 1992 Astronaut and the first woman of colour in space. Her training, which comprised both physical and written tests plus regular homework, was “intense”, according to Light.
He laughs: “She didn’t let us get away with anything, so we had a written test by the end of our time with her, and we were marked and we had to read out our marks. It was like going back to school.”
Meanwhile, Anamaria Marinca, who portrays exobiologist and geologist Marta Kamen on Mars, recalled a particularly difficult piece of homework that Jemison set them. “I had calculate our directory for the ship according to the stars to navigate.”
The effort paid off, it seems. By the end of the training, Poidatz confirms: “We were eating, drinking, thinking, dreaming about space where even we had a karaoke night in Budapest and we were singing Bowie songs about space. Now we’re quite good.”
“The heat in the desert was just formidable.” – Ben Cotton, Ben Sawyer on Mars
If they thought the hard part was over, the cast were in for a nasty shock. The series, which filmed scenes depicting Mars on-location in Morocco during the height of summer, was thoroughly exhausting.
“Some of the hours were incredibly long,” recalls Shaw, “and [the] heat, when we were shooting the series in Morocco. That was really close to being impossible.”
The cast were fitted with special spacesuits similar to the kind that are currently being developed for future missions to Mars, which involved being bolted into helmets and forced to sit and swell in the steaming hot suits. As humans would not be able to breathe the thin Martian air (it is 100 times thinner than Earth’s atmosphere and contains very little oxygen), they were not allowed to remove their visors while shooting.
Ben Cotton, who plays mission commander and systems engineer Ben Sawyer on Mars, says: “The hardest part for me was walking in the desert. The heat in the desert was just formidable.”
The whole process, which was filmed over a period of three months, was a thoroughly gruelling experience, said Poidatz. “At the beginning of the shoot they were making fake eye bags, because our director wanted us to be super tired. At the end of the shoot they were like, you don’t need it any more!”
We asked if filming the series was a test in endurance. Shaw sums it up best: “We don’t have to join Bear Grylls anymore.”
“Nature is unpredictable, so having a backup planet is an imperative. I wouldn’t leave without my family, but if I had to – I would want my family to survive.” – Anamaria Marinca, actor on Mars
Despite doing a convincing job on-screen of being eager to visit the Red Planet, in real life the cast of Mars are less convinced by the prospects – or lack thereof – on Earth’s closest neighbour. Their answers to our query on whether they’d really abandon their families and take on the huge trip to Mars ranged from definitely yes to definitely no.
Ben Cotton: “I don’t know if I would want to go. That’s pretty intense. It’s very cold. There’s no oxygen. I suppose if I went and got a Master’s Degree or six… that might awaken a curiosity that would make me want to go there. But at this point? I don’t think they’re shooting any TV shows up there.”
Sammi Rotibi: “I think I’m still trying to sort my life out [here]. Mars, it’s something quite different, I wouldn’t be able to go for a stroll and smell the fresh air, see my family, go to concerts. I don’t think that’s gonna happen anytime soon on Mars, so I’m okay right now.”
John Light: “Just as soon as I learnt what entailed getting there I thought I wouldn’t even make the journey – let alone be there. Now I think it would be really hard to say you had the opportunity and didn’t take it, and live that way the rest of your life. So I think you’d have to.”
Cosima Shaw: “It’s grown on me, a few months ago I would have said no way. That’s changed. I feel more adventurous now. I’d go, but I’m not so sure about the no return.”
Jihae: “I would never go on a first trip, because there’s a thousand ways you can die and only one way to live. I would only go if there were already habitats set and I could come back if I wanted to.”
Anamaria Marinca: “Nature is unpredictable, so having a backup planet is an imperative. I wouldn’t leave without my family, but if I had to – I would want my family to survive.”
Clementine Poidatz: “I would go, definitely. With no return ticket, on the first mission. Perhaps in two months I would say the opposite.”
“The difficulty of living on Mars tends to push us in a direction to not be the way we are on Earth, where supplies are limitless.” – Steven Petranek, Mars Big Thinker and author of How We’ll Live On Mars
The fact that scientists are preparing to send humans into Mars may seem bizarre to the average reader. What is the long term objective of burning so many resources to send humans on dangerous missions to another planet? The answer is simple, says Petranek.
“A second home for human beings. A place where we can be sure that if something happens on this planet, that the human species, and everything it has accomplished – all the mathematics, science, art, the principles that make civilisation get better and better – all gets preserved somewhere. It’s almost like a library system for the future of humanity.”
Anyone familiar with colonial history will probably look at the prospect of colonising Mars with some unease. Has mankind really learnt anything from their international exploits throughout the years?
Braun is optimistic: “We’ve certainly learnt a thing or two about the use of energy, about the use of resources in a responsible, sustainable way.”
Petranek spots our disbelief at the previous statement, and continues: “I think it’s understandable to think that the humans who messed up this planet will mess up another planet, but all we’re going to do is take something that’s not a whole lot different from a large asteroid and make it better.”
There’s another way of putting it, he says, that makes a lot of sense even to us.
“If we don’t do it right, it will be very inefficient. It will be extremely important to us to be efficient on Mars, to make use of every possible resource we have and recycle it and recycle it and recycle it. In fact, the difficulty of living on Mars tends to push us in a direction to not be the way we are on Earth, where supplies are limitless.”
There’s another reason why scientists are so keen to venture forth onto Mars: to do so will boost technological research substantially, in a way that has not been seen since the Space Race between the US and USSR in the 1950s and 1960s.
Petranek says: “Technology stays stagnant if you don’t have a reason to push it ahead. Simply by going to Mars and establishing a base there, there will be an almost incalculable changes in technology that will benefit everybody on this planet.”