Getting the first humans to Mars will be exciting, challenging and risky, and will probably involve the private spaceflight company SpaceX — at least, that seems to be the thesis of the debut episode of the new National Geographic TV series "Mars."
The new show, which debuted last night (Nov. 14), has a unique format that combines a scripted science fiction drama that follows the first human mission to Mars, set in 2033. Folded in amid the scripted show's contents are documentary segments that discuss the current status of the technologies used by the fictional crew, things like spaceships and Martian habitats.
The first episode starts off by clearly demonstrating the power of this hybrid format. Viewers see a montage of spaceflight milestones, including the Apollo astronauts walking down the gantry toward the spacecraft, Barack Obama giving a speech about setting up off-Earth settlements and SpaceX employees watching anxiously during a rocket launch. If this were a documentary, the montage would end with the present. But following its dramatic thread, the show can proceed beyond what has already happened and into the (albeit fictional) future. ['Mars': An Epic National Geographic Channel Miniseries in Pictures]
The montage narrator (who, viewers soon find out, is the captain of that first Mars mission, played by actor Ben Cotton) informs the audience that sometime in the not-too-distant-future, the nations of the world united, and joined with commercial companies to pursue the goal of establishing a permanent human presence on Mars.
The great appeal of science fiction shows is that they can provide solid representations of the dreams people have for the future. Even though the fictional side of "Mars" takes place only 17 years from now, there's an awful lot to be excited about: high-tech ships, Martian scenery and slim, functional spacesuits. The show is grounded in the near future, so it isn't introducing any truly wild science or technologies, but it will still give sci-fi fans their fix.
But it doesn't seem as though the primary goal of "Mars" is to get people excited about the future; rather, the show wants viewers to get excited about the present. "Mars" treats current efforts to pave the way to Mars with great regard and great interest, and it appears that each episode will focus on a different set of challenges for the first Martian settlers.
The key challenge explored in the first episode of "Mars" is landing on the Red Planet. (There is also some discussion about settlements on Mars, and hopefully there will be more about that in future episodes.)
Rovers that have landed to Mars have utilized a variety of landing systems. Some involve parachutes and air bags, while others involve sky cranes that lower the rover part of the way down. The largest rovers that have made it to Mars are about the size of SUVs, but what happens when humans need to drop something on Mars that weighs as much as a two-story house? The landing systems used for rovers simply won't work on objects of that size, said Bobby Braun, a professor of space technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), and the science consultant for "Mars."
"It's going to be like a whole different way of crossing the ocean, so to speak," he said.
Future Mars landing systems will have to put humans down on the Red Planet, so these systems will have to be reliable and able to keep people alive during descent. Those landing systems will also support more weight and will have to deliver it to very specific locations, Braun told Space.com in August.
At Georgia Tech, Braun is part of an effort to develop one potential Mars landing technology called supersonic retro propulsion. It's the same technology that SpaceX currently uses to land its reusable rocket boosters.
In the first episode of "Mars," the documentary portion of the show conveys some of this information. And this is a perfect example of the strength of this unique format: Viewers not only hear about how difficult it will be to land crewed spacecraft on the Red Planet, but they also see a very visceral scene in which the crewmembers very nearly crash to their deaths.
"There are a thousand ways a rocket could fail and one way that it could succeed," said billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX and serves as CEO, during one of the interview segments on the show. That ratio comes to life in the fictional segment. Another nail-biting element of the show is that mission control on Earth cannot interact with the astronauts in real time (and thus, can't assist with any emergencies). That's because messages sent at the speed of light still take a few minutes to travel to and from Mars, another terrifying reality that actual Mars explorers will face.
It's fun to debate which half of the show is its strongest asset; in some instances, the fictional reality may grab viewers who might not be inspired by a documentary. But Braun thinks the most exciting part of the series is the part that takes place in 2016.
"I think the public will be surprised when they see how much of the prep work is actually happening already," he said. For example, both NASA and SpaceX are working on rockets that will have the power to kick a spacecraft all the way to Mars; people at Johnson Space Center are working on spacesuit designs for Mars astronauts; engineers are figuring out how people who live on Mars could produce water and oxygen on the planet (as opposed to shipping everything from Earth).
"[The show is] going to show all the stuff that's happening in 2016 to get us ready to go [to Mars]," he said. "I think that will be an educational and inspirational event for a lot of people."
SpaceX and Mars
It's not surprising that SpaceX is a central figure in a documentary about current efforts to get humans to Mars. Musk has presented a grand vision for eventually sending thousands of humans to the Red Planet, and perhaps even terraforming the Martian surface (changing the atmosphere such that plant life can grow there). There are other private spaceflight companies with far more experience than SpaceX, but no other private company has announced such grand plans for the future. Most spaceflight companies let NASA come up with those big dreams.
But there are times during the first episode of "Mars" when the subject of the documentary seems to be Musk's company instead of the broader human pursuit of Mars. The story of SpaceX is certainly dramatic and worth telling, but with too narrow a focus, "Mars" risks painting an incomplete picture of humanity's pursuit of the Red Planet.
For example, the documentary segments don't mention NASA's plans to visit Mars or of the technology the agency is building to get there, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the human Orion capsule.
The show also discusses the importance of reusable rockets, which SpaceX is pursuing aggressively. (The company has landed its reusable boosters multiple times, but has not yet launched one of the spent boosters a second time.) One of the experts interviewed for the show stated that reusability is necessary if humans want to set up colonies on Mars, because it lowers the cost of a rocket launch (by how much is still unclear).
The private spaceflight company Blue Origin has both landed and reused its suborbital rocket boosters (suborbital means the rocket doesn't push its payload high enough for it to orbit the Earth indefinitely, but the technology is impressive nonetheless). Blue Origin is working on an orbital rocket, although the company has not announced any plans to go to Mars or other deep-space destinations. The episode also doesn't mention that there are a few companies, including Virgin Galactic, working on reusable spaceplanes that could also help lower the cost of getting things to space.
The show pays homage to NASA's history (primarily the Apollo missions), but it doesn't explicitly emphasize that SpaceX's rocket designs build on decades of experience cultivated primarily at NASA, as well as other space agencies, and many other universities (such as Georgia Tech, where Braun works), research institutes and commercial companies. This isn't necessarily a requirement, but in my view it’s a crucial part of the story. Additionally, there's no way a mission to Mars would be within reach for SpaceX today, were it not for decades of Red Planet exploration by rovers and satellites from NASA and other space agencies. I think in a documentary such as this, which is meant to appeal to a broad audience, that is an important point to include. It's not just about giving credit to those people, but showing the audience how much work has had to happen to make this dream a reality.
It's not that the show explicitly states that SpaceX is alone in its pursuit of Mars, but to make SpaceX effectively the only subject of a documentary that is supposed to be about something bigger may leave some viewers with the wrong impression. The first episode is highly focused on rockets and the challenge of just getting to and from space, so it's possible future episodes will provide a larger perspective.
Just the beginning
Near the end of the first episode, some of the real-world Mars experts begin to share very forward-looking, visionary thoughts about how humans are on the cusp of realizing this long-held dream of sending humans to Mars. Ann Druyan, a well-known science communicator and creative director of the Voyager Mission, told the audience that the dream of putting humans on Mars is "not just science fiction anymore."
"There are people on this planet right this moment that are actually planning and working to perfect the machinery that's necessary to make that possible," she said.
Another commentator called 2016 a "tipping point" and the moment in history when humans will look back and see the species become interplanetary.
But, of course, this is only the first episode, and the journey to Mars is not paved with happy endings. Humanity's fictional, future Mars explorers find themselves in great peril, and with a long journey ahead of them. And in the real world, employees at SpaceX watch as one of the rockets they worked so hard to build vaporizes shortly after liftoff. To find out whether Earth's heroes — both real and fictional — can overcome this hurdle, audiences will have to tune in next week.