While interviewing the cast, writers and scientists involved in making Nat Geo’s docu-series, “Mars,” we felt the need to ask everyone the following question: Given the opportunity, would he or she travel to the Red Planet? Since the show features humans colonizing Mars in the year 2033, such a question could soon be as normal as asking if you’re traveling home to visit family for the holidays.
Everyone except one person — Stephen Petranek, whose book “How We’ll Live on Mars” is what the TV series is based on — gave the same unwavering answer: No.
Knowing what they’ve learned about space travel after an intense year of filming, it made sense actors like Jihae, Javier Delgado and director Everardo Gout wouldn’t be too quick to jump into a spaceship heading to Mars. After traveling between Morocco and Budapest, studying and training with the world’s leading astrophysicists, replicating over and over again on camera what life is really like light years from Earth, all while wearing NASA grade spacesuits in over 100 degree weather, they knew all too well what kind of trip would be.
Now that Season 1 of “Mars” is half done, viewers have a pretty good sense of just how ridiculously complicated it is to successfully land on the Red Planet. In the third episode, “Pressure Drop,” audiences learn that what we’ve seen so far is not even half the battle. In fact, everything leading up to this point is only known as Phase 1… And Phase 2 is exactly why going to Mars is so terrifying.
Going is hard: Staying seems crazy.
First of all, while typically known as the Red Planet, Mars has another well-known nickname: the Death Planet. It is an unforgiving world for Earthlings. With extremely erratic dips in temperatures from day to night, air that is 95 percent carbon dioxide, and lack of solar power so far from the sun, making Mars a habitable for humans requires a complete overhaul of Martian territory. In order for humans to colonize Mars, humans must find a way to supply themselves with these five things: Oxygen, water, food, energy, and shelter. It’s the last that is the prime focus for Phase 2.
The astronauts must find permanent shelter that can provide long-term protection from the atmospheric radiation in order to survive. Since the Daedalus crew is already one man short, and way off its initial landing spot, finding what is referred to as a Lava Tube is no easy feat. But if they don’t, not only is the mission a failure, death for the entire crew is imminent. So, what’s a Lava Tube exactly?
Lava Tubes are places where scientists have discovered humans could successfully live on Mars. It is also the reason why anyone gunning to be on that first mission to Mars may rethink their stance. Lava Tubes are large cavernous underground caves formed by hardened lava after molten rock has flowed through it. To the untrained eye, it’s a night-black hole as deep as the Grand Canyon. And it’s at the base of this cave the astronauts are looking for their home sweet home.
There are numerous reasons humans would initially need to live in underground, former volcanic martian caves. Far below the planet’s surface, ecologists have found the soil contains all the essential ingredients for plants to grow, that there are much larger sources of frozen water available for human use, and that these preserved glaciers extend dozens of miles into the ground.
It makes scientific sense for to build the first human home on Mars, in an atmosphere that seems as desirable as the pit beneath the New York City subway rails. But for a normal person who enjoys natural sunlight, running water, or any of the perks we take for granted living on Earth — this sounds like hell.
Still, Pertranek scoffs at the idea of anyone turning down a trip to Mars.
“That’s like if someone offered you to be on the first flight from New York to Los Angeles, and saying No!” he says to Screener. “You just don’t do that. This is a trip of a lifetime. I would, without hesitation, go.”
Previews for episode 4 show there will be a four-year time jump on “Mars,” and more people who think like Petranek, will soon be arriving to help out the Daedalus crew. Sure, they’ve found a habitable Lava Tube, but the crew’s real work is only just beginning. They need to set up greenhouses, power systems that coverts heat into electricity, ensure reliable point-to-point communication with Earth, etc. The list of tasks humans must accomplish in order order to continue living and thriving on the Death Planet is seemingly endless.
In a pre-flight interview, Hana (Jihae), now captain, is asked what she fears most about going to Mars. She says that it’s the unknown that scares her most. Even if the crew gets into some sort of comfortable routine, they truly have no idea what could happen next. There’s no precedent. And it’s nearly impossible to prepare to fight against the unknown.
If Earthlings can land on Mars, who’s to say another species from another galaxy won’t soon do the same? Will this alien life also be intelligent life? These may sound like silly questions, perhaps the plot line of the next sci-fi blockbuster movie, but these are very serious questions. Ones astrophysicists have been contemplating for decades.
“Mars” prides itself on depicting real life science, and 2033 will be here before we know it. The fact that none of these situations are fictional, well — it’s what makes this the scariest, yet most exciting and uplifting series currently on TV.
“Mars” airs on Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Nat Geo.