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National Geographic "Mars" miniseries
The “Mankind to Mars” panel presentation incorporates video clips from National Geographic Channel’s “Mars” miniseries. (NGC / Imagine / RadicalMedia)

If you want to maximize your chances of weathering Mars’ harsh radiation environment, get in the habit of eating broccoli.

That’s a bit of far-out diet advice from Ray Arvidson, a veteran of robotic Red Planet missions going back to the Viking landers in the 1970s.

Arvidson, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, was among a trio of space experts holding forth at “National Geographic Live: Mankind to Mars,” a multimedia panel presentation hosted by the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall.

The traveling show is inspired by the National Geographic Channel’s hybrid docudrama TV series, “Mars,” which finished its first six-episode season last December and has gotten the green light for a second season.

Arvidson and his fellow panelists – “Night Sky Guy” commentator Andrew Fazekas and Vanderbilt astrophysicist Jedidah Isler – make liberal use of video clips and graphics from the TV show to make their points about the prospects for finding traces of life on Mars, and perhaps building settlements there.

National Geographic "Mankind to Mars" show
Science writer Andrew Fazekas, astrophysicist Jedidah Isler and planetary scientist Ray Arvidsen take the stage for “National Geographic Live: Mankind to Mars” at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

During Sunday’s opening performance, the trio outlined the plans that NASA and SpaceX have crafted for Red Planet odysseys, and looked a few giant leaps further down the road. Here are five takeaways from the talk:

Eat your broccoli

Arvidson pointed out that settlers on Mars would face plenty of hardships. For example, the lack of a global magnetic field and a thick atmosphere means travelers would face heightened exposure to radiation. In the “Mars” TV show, crews build their main camps in lava tubes underground as a protective measure. But Arvidson noted that broccoli contains a compound called 3,3’-diindolylmethane, or DIM, which scientists have found reduces the risk of radiation damage to DNA.

“Anyone in the audience getting ready to go to Mars in the next 10 years, start eating your broccoli,” Arvidson joked.

Capture the moment

Isler said the first humans to land on Mars are likely to create an “Armstrong moment,” analogous to the worldwide sensation stirred up by Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface in 1969. The moon’s moment was captured on black-and-white TV, but the moment on Mars is certain to make use of more advanced media.

“I’m thinking Snapchat, maybe?” Fazekas quipped.

It’s not too early to start thinking about how virtual reality or other immersive media might come into play in future space adventures. When those first steps are taken on Mars, billions of people may well have a first-person perspective on the feat (and the feet).

“Let’s make it an ‘Armstrong and all of us’ moment,” Isler said.

HoloLens in the house

Speaking of immersive media, Arvidson pointed out that Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented-reality headset is already playing a big role in Mars exploration. NASA’s mission planners can put themselves on a virtual Red Planet, based on image data collected by the Curiosity rover, to plot the rover’s future course.

“We use the Microsoft HoloLens today to plan the Curiosity traverses. … We go on Mars every day to walk the planet,” Arvidson said.

NASA engineers are also using the augmented-reality platform to tweak the design for the next Mars rover, due for launch in 2020.

When will it happen?

SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, is targeting the mid-2020s for his company’s first crewed missions to Mars, with an eye toward putting a million or more settlers on the Red Planet over the course of several decades. NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars starting in the 2030s.

Arvidson thinks both those timetables are too optimistic. Humans may go into orbit around Mars in the 2030s, but the first landing seems more likely to occur in the 2040s, “unless we get our act together on an international basis,” Arvidson said.

Fazekas said the timetable may be accelerated if commercial ventures, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, keep pushing out to the space frontier. Isler, however, envisions a more conservative time frame. “I’d add 20 years,” she said.

Who will own Mars?

As commercial space ventures become more adventurous, the question of property rights in space will become more of a concern.

The emerging consensus, at least in the U.S., is that nations and companies won’t be able to declare sovereignty or ownership of Martian territory – but that companies will be able to take advantage of the resources they extract from Martian soil, just as fishing fleets are entitled to the fish they catch in international waters.

Arvidson said explorers should be extremely careful to avoid disturbing potential habitats for present-day life on Mars. For example, the managers for NASA’s Opportunity rover mission gave the go-ahead for exploration of a gully known as Perseverance Valley only after determining that the terrain was too ancient to harbor subsurface liquid water or life.

Isler pointed out that the very idea of owning or “colonizing” Mars raises ethical issues. “It’s not ours to own – it’s ours to marvel at,” she said.

Arvidson said the idea of terraforming Mars to become like Earth will have to remain in the realm of science fiction. The atmosphere is too far gone to sustain the kind of complex chemistry that produces Earth’s warmer, wetter environment.

“Terraforming just doesn’t work, folks,” Arvidson said. “It just doesn’t work.”

Despite those cold realities, the kids in the audience were focused on the fact that they could represent the first generation of Mars travelers, based on the issues that came up during the event’s Q&A session. One 14-year-old girl asked what she should do to get ready for missions to Mars.

Once more, Arvidson provided a down-to-earth piece of advice: Stay in school. Do well in math and science, focus on engineering in college, and “there will be jobs,” he said.

“We need more females in that area, that’s for sure,” Arvidson said.

“National Geographic Live: Mankind to Mars” goes on stage again today and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, with the Seattle Symphony as host. Check out the Seattle Symphony website for ticket information.

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