The marquee aspect of National Geographic Channel’s “Mars” is that it’s not a sci-fi exploration of the Red Planet, it’s a painstakingly researched and realistic depiction of what the first human mission to Mars would look like: While we see a crew of diverse and fearless astronauts take flight in 2033, the series flashes back to the current day, interviewing what the network refers to as “Big Thinkers” — Neil DeGrasse Tyson, SpaceEx CEO Elon Musk, former NASA astronauts Jim Lovell and Mae C. Jemison, President of The Mars Society Robert Zurbin, etc. — who each weigh on related technological innovations that are happening right now.
If everything on this revolutionary series can happen in real life, viewers will understandably experience many “OMG” reactions while watching. The need to explore Mars is dire. Doing it isn’t far from happening. And the brilliant possibilities that await humankind once we achieve such goals are fascinatingly endless.
Here are the Top 4 most mind-blowing facts to take away from the “Mars” premiere episode, “Novo Mondo.”
1. The technology to travel to Mars has been around since the 1960s.
So, what’s the hold up? Why are we not already there? The answer is because there’s no point in flying all the way to Mars just to take a stroll around and plant a flag. The goal of getting to Mars is to make it second home for humankind — to establish “a backup planet,” as Musk says.
There’s also the issue of getting there faster, and with reusable rockets to lower the cost. Leonard David, who wrote the companion book for the “Mars” series: “People are working on prolusion systems right now in which we could get there in one- or two-week trips. In the future, it won’t be 6 or 9 months to get to Mars. You’ve got to travel faster in space. Then there’s less worry about radiation and the effect of microgravity. And once you do that, you’ll be in much better shape.”
And when the technology does successfully exist? “There’s a lot… to be decided,” says Stephen Petranek, who wrote the book on which the series is based.
“Huge questions: Who will own what on Mars? How will we police people? What kind of government? Will it be a scientific park? …To discover if there was ever life there? This process is out of control, because now private business can go to Mars.”
Questioning whether it’s better to have private businesses working together, or if the competition between countries helps propel progress, is like questioning the foundation of capitalism.
“We’re always in a Wright Brothers kind of stage,” says David. “Space planes, rocket concepts, sub-orbital travel, making every place on the planet accessible in 90 minutes… The technology exists. But it hasn’t been integrated and tested. And then of course, you have the FAA coming in making sure it doesn’t kill anybody… But it’s progress. Aviation is rife with innovation.”
2. Colonizing Mars will also help save the Earth
Global warming is a definite force pushing the need to colonize Mars, but it doesn’t mean we’re giving up on Earth. “Because we will need to terraform Mars and make it more like Earth,” Petranek says, “The opposite will happen. The push we’re going to give on technology will advance so quickly, especially in atmospheric sciences and in water use, that we will bring that back to Earth. We will actually learn things making Mars more habitable, that will make Earth much better.”
Expanding the space program, giving normal citizens the opportunity to experience orbital travel, will also make an impact.
“When you’re halfway to Mars, and you look back and [see] Earth is the size of a tiny marble, you realize how vulnerable it is,” Petranek says. “Only astronauts have had that experience. They always come back to Earth and are more concerned than ever before. If millions of people go to Mars, and get that perspective of their home planet, they’re going to stop using air and water as waste stream.”
“The two things [colonizing Mars and saving Earth] cannot compete,” says “Mars” director Everardo Gout, discussing this topic with Screener at the series premiere in New York City.
“You have people spending gazillion dollars on destroying the planet, drilling oil, making weapons — why don’t we use the money to explore? But that … doesn’t mean we don’t clean up our act here.”
3. Psychology is the hardest part of preparing the Mars mission
David’s biggest concern when it comes to getting to Mars isn’t the technology, it’s the getting a crew psychologically prepared.
“To survive, and thrive, on Mars are two [different] concepts,” he says. “If you just survive, that’s not what this is about. It’s thriving on the Red Planet. We have a lot of way to go, as far as the psychological make-up of the crew. Who’s going to go? And how much training they will have to go through?”
“You’re on your own there,” he says. “And that delay in communications — like if we’re in the airlock and arguing about which way to turn the handle, you can’t wait for mission control to say No — it will take 40 minutes, round-trip, and then it’s too late. These people are going to have to be well-trained.”
4. TV & movies can get the momentum going
“There’s a lot to do,” David says. “When Kennedy got shot, the momentum of what he got rolling, we were to pull it off (such as landing on the Moon for the first time) within that decade. Money, politics, civil rights problems, all these are parts of things. But we actually are going to Mars. There are thousands of people working every day to get us to there right now. Once you’re on a roll, you go for it all.”
Astronaut Jemison, who has acquired an astonishing nine PhDs, consulted closely on the “Mars” script.
“The reason we’re not on Mars now,” she says, “Is… public commitment. That public commitment was lost. We didn’t include everyone in the dream. Space is one of the easiest thing to do in order to get people excited, because everyone around this world has looked up to the stars and wondered about space and astronomy.”
“[Anyone] can be a part of it, through virtual reality,” Jamison says: Crediting moving such as “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” and “The Martian,” even if those movies are not always as scientifically accurate as “Mars,” Jemison insists “storytelling” is key for drumming up excitement to explore the great unknown.
Space travel in itself is a humble reminder of how small our individual existence — and thus, our differences — really are on this planet. If we explore and settle, we become Earthlings: That’s already more important the differences between us like race, religion, sexual discrimination and the like — but considering the current political climate, it is urgently time to remember that, for ourselves and our children.
To that end, “Mars” couldn’t have possibly premiered at a better time. Let’s get Earth Red Planet-ready.
“Mars” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.