The “Mars” miniseries premiering on the National Geographic Channel is only the latest in a decades-long string of media projects laying out a vision for settling Mars – but this time, the creators say they’re sure the vision will actually come true.
“We’re in a zeitgeist moment right now,” producer Justin Wilkes told GeekWire. “There are enough people talking about Mars, thinking about Mars, dreaming about Mars, and now there are people who actually have the means to do something about it.”
The people leading the pack are at SpaceX, where billionaire founder Elon Musk has made the establishment of a sustainable city on Mars his lifetime goal. The 45-year-old Musk and other space luminaries lay out their case in “Mars,” in interviews that are interspersed with a fictional movie-style narrative about the first human mission to the Red Planet in 2033.
Musk sees the push to Mars as an evolutionary imperative, to ensure humanity’s survival in the event of a global catastrophe on Earth. Wilkes sees it the same way: “At its most basic level, it’s backing up the human species,” he said.
Wilkes started out planning to do a documentary about Musk and SpaceX, but Musk persuaded him to think bigger. Soon Ron Howard and Brian Grazer (the filmmakers behind “Apollo 13”) signed on as the executive producers for a six-episode miniseries that used the Moroccan desert as a stand-in for Mars. National Geographic also commissioned a coffee-table book about Martian exploration, plus a cover story for this month’s issue of National Geographic magazine.
You could argue that this Mars project is on the same scale as rocket scientist Wernher von Braun’s campaign to popularize space missions back in the 1950s – a campaign that spawned a book, magazine articles and a series of Disney TV spots. That media blitz helped get the American public ready for the space race of the 1960s.
“I would hope that the public’s mind will grasp onto this in a similar way,” said journalist Stephen Petranek, the author of “How We’ll Live on Mars.” Petranek’s slim book, published last year, set the wheels in motion for this year’s “Mars” production.
“People need to grab onto this, because it’s going to happen,” Petranek said. “The reason I wrote the book in the first place was to say, ‘Hey, wake up!’ We’re going to Mars. Whether you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea, we’re going to Mars, and now is the time to be thinking about it. You’re going to wake up in a few years and suddenly people are landing on Mars, and you are not going to be prepared for that.”
Petranek’s book described a mission that sent twin spaceships to the first Mars landing in 2027 – which is a few years earlier than the miniseries’ time frame, but a few years later than Musk’s current timetable. In September, Musk laid out a grand plan that would put humans on Mars as early as 2025.
“I suspect he’s still a couple of years off,” Petranek said. “I would stick with 2027, possibly 2029.”
What makes Petranek and Wilkes so sure it’s going to happen this time? They say it’s because space odysseys, even missions to Mars, are no longer the exclusive domain of government space programs.
“Like Apollo, there needs to be a tremendous amount of political will to pull off this kind of mission,” Wilkes said. “But unlike Apollo, this is the first time private enterprise has both the technology and the financial means – not to do it solely, but certainly to become a catalyst.”
Musk and SpaceX are serving as that catalyst, starting with a privately funded “Red Dragon” mission to Mars that could lift off as early as the year after next. SpaceX is already talking with NASA and other potential customers about putting payloads on the robotic Dragon capsule it intends to launch atop a Falcon Heavy rocket.
Petranek said some think the first mission is likely to fail – but even if that’s the case, Musk intends to keep trying. His willingness to endure failure on Mars is an advantage that SpaceX has over government-funded programs, Petranek said.
“The really interesting thing is that NASA is 100 percent behind this,” he said. “They can’t give them any money … but they’re doing everything they can to help SpaceX, because they want the knowledge that SpaceX will accrue from attempting to do this.”
NASA’s support is as essential to SpaceX’s aspirations as SpaceX is to NASA’s aspirations. Although Musk has laid out a detailed plan for getting humans to Mars, it’s NASA that has been working on the technologies to keep humans alive once they get there.
“If SpaceX had to develop that part of the technology, it would take them another 10 years,” Petranek said. “They really need each other.”
Because of that interdependence, Petranek said he’s “scared to death” of what President-elect Donald Trump might do, or not do.
“The sad fact about NASA is that it’s not an independent agency, the way it should be,” Petranek said. “Its CEO is the president, and if the president says we’re going to Mars, they go to Mars. If the president says we’re going to the moon, they go to the moon. If the president doesn’t really care, then NASA’s budget struggles.”
As I open the Mars habitat model at London's Royal Observatory for Nat Geo's new Mars series, I fear what Trump will do to NASA's budget.
— Stephen Petranek (@Petranek) November 10, 2016
The signals from the Trump campaign have been mixed: Last year, the candidate said the space effort was “terrific” but suggested that fixing potholes was more important. Last month, Trump policy advisers said in an op-ed for Space News that solar-system exploration should be NASA’s goal. But this week, there’s no mention of NASA or space (except for “office space”) on the Trump transition team’s website.
Trump and his advisers will have to negotiate the intricacies of international cooperation when it comes to Mars exploration. No one country, not even the United States, can take on the task by itself, said Robert Braun, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Colorado who served as a technical adviser for the miniseries.
Braun is familiar with the ins and outs of mission planning, thanks to his academic work as well as his stint as NASA’s chief technologist in 2010-2011. For the “Mars” miniseries, he worked with the writers to give the mission’s leading roles to a fictional Vienna-based consortium (the International Mars Science Foundation) and a SpaceX-like commercial venture (the Mars Mission Corporation).
“It is an international public-private partnership,” Braun explained. “The reason we settled on that, frankly, is that an organization like NASA – which is a great organization, by the way – has four or five missions. They have a mission to study our own planet, and the space science mission, and an aeronautics mission, and the International Space Station, and deep-space exploration. I think it’s going to take a new organization that has a single-minded goal.”
Would Donald Trump go for that?
“He wants to make America great again, right?” Braun said. “To me, there’s no better way to display your greatness than to have an ambitious space program. And there’s no ambitious space goal that’s greater than the idea of having humans on Mars. I’m not connected to the Trump administration in any way, but I certainly hope Mr. Trump watches the series. I hope it inspires him.”
The six-episode “Mars” miniseries makes its TV debut on the National Geographic Channel on Monday, but you can watch the first episode now on National Geographic’s website. More than a dozen featurettes, including a half-hour prequel titled “Before Mars,” are available for viewing via the website and National Geographic’s YouTube channel. The website also offers virtual reality games and other extras.