It’s not unknown for science fiction programming to have an educational aspect: the early seasons of Doctor Who were intended to alternate between stories set in the future and the past so young viewers could learn about both science and history, and a decade later Moonbase 3 was the BBC’s attempt to make a “hard” science fiction show in strict adherence to established fact and informed speculation, with Star Cops following a decade after that.
Created by Ben Young Mason and Justin Wilkes and based on Stephen Petranek’s book How We’ll Live on Mars, National Geographic’s six part docudrama miniseries Mars is something quite different, the dramatic narrative of the Daedalus as it reaches the end of its seven month voyage to the red planet in the year 2033 spliced with scenes in the present day as notable space scientists, engineers and others associated with the space programme discuss the challenges and possibilities of undertaking such a mission and the reasons why they believe it is necessary and inevitable.
“We crossed the oceans, we conquered the skies, and when there were no more frontiers on Earth we launched ourselves among the stars,” says mission commander and systems engineer Ben Sawyer (Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome‘s Ben Cotton) as a montage of innovations, exploration and achievement plays, the birth of the space age in the keynote speech of President Kennedy echoed decades later by President Obama: “We can push out into the solar system, not just to visit but to stay.”
A project of the International Mars Science Foundation, funded by governments and private industry, it is immediately apparent that unlike much drama which is based on antagonism and rivalry that this is to be about cooperation and camaraderie, that the adversary to be overcome is nature, the exposure to radiation, the battle against loss of bone density, the mental toll of prolonged isolation and the high risk of the mission.
“Getting to Mars will be risky, dangerous, uncomfortable, but it will be the greatest adventure ever in human history,” says Elon Musk, CEO and lead designer of the private space technology firm SpaceX, while Shana Diez, director of build reliability, confirms “People can be interplanetary. That’s just an engineering problem like any other.”
Yet with the dramatised scenes jumping to the arrival of the Daedulus at Mars and the crucial atmospheric entry, a major hurdle which has been the bane of many automated expeditions and most recently the Schiaparelli lander, it somewhat disingenuously skips the huge technical and logistical challenges of getting there in the first place, implying that all the pieces are in place for such a mission to depart if only the question of the descent through the tenuous atmosphere could be resolved.
The 209 days of the journey uncommented upon other than Musk’s emphasis that the vessel used must be more akin to the now retired Space Shuttle rather than the mighty rockets of the Apollo missions (“If wooden sailing ships in the old days were not reusable, I don’t think the United States would exist”), it is Mars itself which is to be the exclusive focus of the twin strands of the show.
The crew of the Daedalus comprising Sawyer, Marta Kamen (Europa Report‘s Anamaria Marinca), exobiologist and geologist, Hana Seung (Jihae), mission pilot and systems engineer, Amelia Durand (Clémentine Poidatz), mission physician and biochemist, Javier Delgado (Narcos‘ Alberto Ammann), geochemist and hydrologist, and Robert Foucalt (Dawn of Justice‘s Sammi Rotibi), mechanical engineer and roboticist, none have so far been given the chance to express themselves as characters beyond their blandly optimistic mission statements.
“We’ve been training for this half our lives, and dreaming about it even longer,” Sawyer offers, while Sueng, whose twin sister is part of the mission control team back home, is sanguine about the risks they are undertaking: “If we don’t succeed, we’ve still paved the path for people after us to come.”
Andy Weir, author of The Martian, is perhaps overstating the long term contribution of inhabitation to humanity when he says “Once humans are on two different planets the odds of extinction drop to nearly zero,” yet that is undeniably one of the goals, a first step on the road to colonising Mars, a proof of concept of further goals.
With the plans of the International Mars Science Foundation set out in three phases, Initial Human Presence, 2033 – 2035, Construction and Expansion, 2037 – 2041, Settlement, 2041 – 2050, the supplies and resources of their base camp already delivered by automated couriers are essential yet insufficient in the long run, and the first hurdle on arrival is the bad entry which places the Daedalus far beyond their targeted landing, yet so fundamental a crisis so early feels contrived: with another five episodes to go which are unlikely to be spent slowly starving in a frozen wasteland, of course the crew will reach their intended destination.
It would be churlish to criticise something which is not only obviously ambitious on two fronts, both as a science fiction drama and an educational programme, but has the endorsement and involvement of so many significant individuals for whom it is obviously beyond a labour of love but is in fact a vision they have spent their lives working to realise, but it cannot be avoided that Mars has not yet quite found its feet, that the two masters it needs to serve have quite different requirements which cannot quite be reconciled.
With input from Jim Green of NASA Planetary Science, Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society, Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society, Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, former astronaut John Grunsfeld and Apollo 13 commander James A Lovell, the digital effects are not nearly so exciting as the actual footage of current rocket tests, and the whole feels somewhat flat as a result, the science more engaging than the fiction.
It is to be hoped that the discontinuity between the two sides can be addressed over the remaining episodes of the miniseries, a divide which is actively being bridged in the real world. In the words of Ann Druyan, creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Mission, “It’s not just science fiction any more. 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.”