New NatGeo Mars Series Blends Today's Realities with Tomorrow's Dreams

New NatGeo Mars Series Blends Today's Realities with Tomorrow's Dreams

National Geographic (NatGeo) will begin airing a new mini-series, Mars, on Monday, November 14.  It interweaves interviews with today’s scientists and engineers, both at NASA and SpaceX, who seek to send humans to Mars, with a science fiction drama about the first humans to land there in 2033.  A companion book by space journalist Leonard David provides excellent background on the challenges involved in such an undertaking.

The Washington premier of the series was held at National Geographic headquarters here tonight.  Executive Producer Justin Wilkes explained that the idea originated with Elon Musk, who wanted to chronicle SpaceX’s efforts to develop systems to take humans to Mars, but he and others involved in the project quickly realized there was a much bigger story to tell.  

NatGeo asserts that the mini-series will “redefine storytelling” by combining “scripted drama … with documentary sequences.”  Indeed, the episodes interweave today — 2016 — with tomorrow — 2033, the year in which it postulates that the first humans reach the Martian surface.  Of course, landing people on Mars isn’t easy. Not to give away the plot, let’s just say there are plenty of obstacles to overcome in the best dramatic fashion.  The alternating sequences of interviews with Musk, Mars Society’s Bob Zubrin, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green and many others in the real world of today come and go more seamlessly than one might expect, though the airtime given to SpaceX is somewhat overbearing.  To its credit, the series includes SpaceX launch and landing failures as well as successes, however.

NASA’s Green and Jeff Sheehy, Senior Technical Officer in the Space Technology Mission Directorate, were among a group of panelists who addressed the audience after the screening of the first two episodes.  Both spoke optimistically about the progress NASA is making with its robotic Mars program and technology developments, though when asked if 2033 is a realistic date for humans to set foot on Mars, Green hedged.  Noting that President Obama’s directive was to have humans in the vicinity of Mars in 2030s (in orbit, not on the surface), he suggested a landing could come in the 2040s, though technological advances could move that date forward.

Joining Wilkes, Green and Sheehy on the panel were series Director Everardo Grout, actors Ben Cotton and Jihae, and Leonard David.  Cotton plays the role of mission commander Ben Sawyer.  Jihae plays twins — one (Hana Seung) is the mission’s pilot while the other (Joon Seung) remains on Earth as capsule communicator at mission control.  The series was filmed in Budapest and Morocco and the actors said they were met in Budapest by former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison who was a technical adviser to the series and educated them on technical issues as well as how to behave and talk like astronauts.

David is a prize-winning space journalist who recently co-authored Buzz Aldrin’s “Mission to Mars” book, also published by NatGeo.  His companion book for this series, “Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet,” is beautifully illustrated, as one would expect from NatGeo.  Organized into six chapters to match the six-part series, the book covers a breadth of technical topics in layperson’s language that is easy and fun to read.  It is not only about the science of understanding Mars and the technology needed to send people there, but physiological and psychological challenges, concerns about planetary protection, opportunities for international collaboration, and cultural impacts.  It offers a more balanced combination of blue-sky optimism and down-to-earth pragmatism than most books about sending humans to Mars.

The series will air on the National Geographic channel beginning Monday, although the first episode is viewable on its website already together with related content.   The book is available through National Geographic, and other outlets.

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