“Mission control, we’re looking at the Red Planet.”
Astronaut Hana Seung makes the announcement as the space shuttle jerks and jolts. It is the year 2033, and Earth has just witnessed the first successful human landing on Mars.
Executive produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, the new National Geographic six-part series “Mars” effortlessly mixes today’s realities with tomorrow’s possibilities. An intriguing blend of scripted fictional drama taking place in 2033 and interviews with today’s renowned scientists, “Mars” explores the infinite hardships humans must prepare for and overcome on a journey to Mars—which NASA and SpaceX hope will be launched in less than 20 years.
The series was partly inspired by author Stephen Petranek’s book called “How We’ll Live on Mars.” Petranek addressed some of the most pressing obstacles if humans were to live on Mars.
“[One obstacle is] radiation because that atmosphere is very thin. When you live on Mars, at least initially you’ll either have to live behind very thick brick walls—maybe 20-feet thick—or you’ll live in lava tubes, the giant caves formed by volcanoes,” said Petranek. “The biggest challenge hit home when I saw the Mars set built for the series. It’s going to be dark and depressing. You’re going to live indoors most of the time. It’s a lot like living in Antarctica but without as much light. Mars is twice as far away from the sun as Earth, so you don’t get as much sunlight there. It’s like living in Chicago at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in the winter. It’ll be a slightly dreary place and the biggest challenge for people living there will be psychological.”
NASA astronaut Garrett Riesman has spent about 107 days in space aboard the International Space Station. Currently, he serves as the director of crew operations at SpaceX.
“Mentally—there’s not a whole lot you can do to prepare mentally,” said Riesman. “We studied a bunch of analogs to prepare for the Space Station. You’d do something similar for Mars—you’d look at… what worked well on expeditions so you can learn lessons from the past. You can’t prepare mentally for the isolation—it’s something you have to learn to do.”
Luckily, Riesman had what he called phenomenal crews to support him on this journey traveling miles away from Earth.
“I was really lucky—There are crews where there are problems and where people don’t get along and they rely on their professionalism to get the job done. You can ruin flying in space by going with the wrong people,” said Riesman.
French actress Clementine Poidatz plays Astronaut Amelie Durand. She called the rest of the cast her “big brothers and sisters,” who were so supportive and bonded through “space bootcamp,” where the actors had a chance to train and learn about the realities of being and astronaut.
The Mars colony was filmed in Budapest and Morocco, places that had a topography similar to that of the Red Planet.
“The location and seeing the beauty of nature is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It brings you to a place of solitude and makes you think about thing,” said actress and singer Jihae, whose role as Korean American twins Hana and Joon Seung marked her acting debut. “Yes, working and wearing space suits and walking up the sand dunes across the different locations was really, really tough. The heat was oppressive. It was very intense, but it was an incredible experience.”
Before signing on to the project, Poidatz knew nothing about space. The experience opened her eyes to the near future’s realities.
“I never dreamt about being an astronaut because I was ignorant. I thought I wasn’t interested—that wasn’t true,” said Poidatz. “When I first prepared for my self-tape, I started to watch videos, and for me astronauts were heroes. They were not human beings. Then I started to watch videos about Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut. He’s so real about what he’s doing—I realized they have to deal with fear, they have to deal with life, and they have missions to do, they are working on something so big…. It’s going to be mind-blowing to witness that [landing on Mars]. I want to go if I have the opportunity. I want to go just to touch the soil.”
While going to Mars may seem like a far-fetched idea, the mini-series shows viewers that there are already so many different kinds of technology in place to make our dreams possible—and not only just for the select few highly trained astronauts, either.
“One of the most interesting conversations I had while doing this book [‘How We’ll Live on Mars’] was with Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX,” said author Stephen Petranek. SpaceX is a private corporation hoping to privatize space travel. “It had been reported in the press that he thought we needed 80,000 people on Mars in order to have a sustainable system there. And he said no, no, ‘The press got that entirely wrong. I intend to send 80,000 people at once to Mars every two years by 2050…’ It takes millions of people to actually create a civilization on another planet.”
Andy Weir, author of “The Martian” which inspired the Matt Damon Oscar award-winning movie, speculated on what would have to change in order to push people towards colonization.
“Colonization of a place or any location only happens when there’s an economic drive to make it happen,” said Weir. “You’re not going to have a million people move to Mars just for the hell of it—there has to be something pulling them there.”
For now, however, the goal is to spark interest of not only scientists and engineers but also viewers watching at home.
“Space exploration is part of a virtuous cycle,” explained Weir. “Something like National Geographic’s ‘Mars’ comes out, which a lot of people watch and enjoy, which increases their interest in the space program, which increases the funding for the space programs, which increases the technology, which increases the accomplishments, which increases the fictional representation—so this whole sequence continues. For instance, ‘The Martian’ sparked one cycle.”
Actress Jihae had high hopes for what ‘Mars’ will accomplish in furthering the cycle of stimulating interest and expanding imaginations.
“Our younger audiences will learn that this is no joke. This is not fantasy. This is reality. We are explorers by nature. Our ancestors from way back when who went off from Africa and found new habitats—that’s why we look so different. We’re always exploring,” said Jihae. “This is just an extension of that. You guys will not only fall in love with the series because it’s got so much drama and beauty, but also because the subject matter is today, it’s now, it’s our future. It’s very likely that some of you and some of your children will be colonizing Mars.”
“Mars” premieres on National Geographic on Nov. 14.