New Mini-Series, Documentary Target the Red Planet
The Mars-bound spacecraft Terra Nova begins the long trek to the red planet in Discovery Channel's Race to Mars.
Credit: Discovery Channel Canada.

The first astronauts to explore Mars will undoubtedly face challenges, some of which may mirror those depicted in a new mini-series and documentary chronicling humanity?s initial steps on the red planet.

?Race to Mars,? a martian multimedia event orchestrated by the Discovery Channel Canada, follows the efforts of six spaceflyers on a 600-day mission to reach the red planet and hunt for life before China?s unmanned probes. The first installment of the four-hour miniseries airs tonight for viewers in Canada.

?This will be the definitive story of the human mission to Mars,? said Paul Lewis, president and general manager for Discovery Channel Canada, in a statement.

A six-part documentary ?Mars Rising? ? narrated by veteran space actor William Shatner ? will follow the mini-series beginning Oct. 7 to present an in-depth look at the inherent hurdles facing a human expedition to Mars. A companion book and multimedia Web site further explore issues raised in the $20 million television events.

?With this unprecedented multi-platform event, our mission is to reignite excitement in the Space Age and inspire a whole new generation to look outward towards the planets,? Lewis said. ?

?Race to Mars? arrives just before the 50th anniversary of the Space Age ? which began with the Oct. 4, 1957 launch of the former Soviet Union?s Sputnik 1 satellite ? as NASA continues work to return humans to the moon by 2020. The U.S. space agency is drawing up plans for new spacecraft, larger habitats and long range pressurized rovers as part of its lunar exploration vision.

The flight experience and hardware tests gathered from long-duration lunar sorties could prove invaluable for a future manned flight to Mars, where a multitude of orbiters currently study the red planet from on high and NASA?s twin robots Spirit and Opportunity rove across its surface.

But in ?Race to Mars,? set in 2030, those early lunar and martian missions have long since past with China taking the lead in red planet exploration. Playing catch-up is an international manned Mars mission by Canada, the U.S., Russia, France and Japan.

It?s an ambitious mission with a massive crew transport craft (the Terra Nova) that spins to produce artificial gravity, as robotic flights deliver the requisite astronaut habitat, rovers and other cargo. Commanding the flight is veteran astronaut Rick Erwin (Michael Riley, ?Supervolcano,? ?This is Wonderland?), who oversees a four-man, two-woman crew of seasoned astronauts, engineers and scientists.

?Race to Mars? spends much of its focus on the psychological and engineering hurdles of long duration spaceflight, with the crew of Terra Nova wrestling against faulty hardware as well as their own interpersonal tensions.

Crew relations, it turns out, is no small feat. A joint team or Russian and European researchers here are Earth are planning a 520-day mock Mars mission to study the long-duration stresses that may afflict an astronaut crew en route to the red planet.

But aside from the hunt for water, and its implications for extraterrestrial life, Race for Mars shows little of the other possible science astronauts may perform on the red planet or what they might do with those precious moments of free time. ??

The ?Race to Mars? companion book, by author Dana Berry, does provide more detail into the Terra Nova astronauts? activities and peppers their story with relevant events from the last 50 years of spaceflight.

To prepare for his role as the Terra Nova?s commander, Riley said he studied the experiences of former NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger, who weathered a fire, system failures and a near-collision with an unmanned freighter while serving aboard Russia?s Mir Space Station.

The first manned flight to Mars will also likely command attention the globe over like NASA?s historic Apollo 11 mission that first set astronauts on the moon, added Riley, who remembers exactly where he was during that first lunar landing.

?I was seven years old and glued to my grandmother?s black and white television,? Riley said in a statement. ?My daughter is 11 and I hope she experiences the same kind of wonder when we land on Mars.?

?Race to Mars? debuts tonight at 8:00 p.m. ET/9:00 p.m. PT (check local listings) on Discovery Channel Canada.

Click here for more on the Race to Mars project.

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