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National Geographic makes hazardous journey to ‘MARS’ in new miniseries

BY   November 16, 2016 at 2:30 PM EST
JiHAE as Hana Seung the Korean-American mission pilot and software engineer on the Daedalus, a spaceship in the new National Geographic Channel drama-documentary MARS. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

JiHAE as Hana Seung the Korean-American mission pilot and software engineer on the Daedalus, a spaceship in the new National Geographic Channel drama-documentary MARS. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

Editor’s note: This review is spoiler-free.

For those who want to adventure on the first manned voyage to Mars, be prepared to be sick. The myriad trials and physical strains of this future journey percolate through ‘MARS’ — a new six-part miniseries that premiered Monday on National Geographic Channel.

The show is part documentary, part fictional drama. The narrative cuts between genuine space exploration research sites at NASA and SpaceX to a fictional trip set in 2033 aboard the first crewed mission to the Red Planet. MARS details much of today’s cutting-edge science and engineering related to a future a Mars mission, while taking care to spotlight the technology and physical dangers associated with the concept.

“The fiction comes close enough to reality to make me feel good about it,” said Stephen Petranek, an author and technologist who wrote the TED Book upon which the television series is based.

In MARS, an international federation called the IMSF funds and manages the voyage. Photo by  National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

In MARS, a multinational federation called the IMSF funds and manages the voyage. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

While watching a screener of the first two episodes, I was struck by the interviews with many leaders in space exploration, such as Apollo 13 commander James A. Lovell, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. The MARS film crew traveled across the U.S. and Europe to collect over 100 hours with these luminaries.

The executive producers, which included Academy Award winning filmmaker Ron Howard, ventured as far as Antarctica to document research on extreme environments that mimic Mars. The temperature on Mars, for instance, ranges from -100 to -195 degrees Fahrenheit at night. The final stages landed in Morocco, where the team simulated the backdrop of Valles Marineris, a large Martian canyon.

“It’s actually one of the potential landing spots that NASA, or anybody who is thinking about Mars right now, might actually choose,” said MARS executive producer Justin Wilkes, whose credits include the Oscar, Grammy and Emmy-nominated Nina Simone documentary. Later, their visual effects crew poured over satellite and rover images to fill in the background. “What you see in the show is fairly accurate in terms of the actual location of where that would be on Mars.”

Some of the Daedalus crew exploring Mars. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

Some of the Daedalus crew exploring Mars. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

The dramatic portions of MARS borrow from popular TV tropes, such as reality TV-style confessionals from the six-person crew. The dialogue feels forced at times, which may be due to the actors trying to portray the gravity of their somewhat suicidal mission while also exposing the details of the science.

Keep your eyes peeled for fleeting glimpses of the crew members’ personal belongings inside their spaceship — the Daedalus. The idea came from Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, who explained to the producers how family trinkets or favorite sweaters kept astronauts mentally grounded during long tenures in space. Meanwhile, the spaceship’s design pulls cues from NASA’s plans for a Martian launch system and vehicle.

The Daedalus on Mars.  Some of the Daedalus crew exploring Mars. Image courtesy of Framestore

The Daedalus on Mars. Some of the Daedalus crew exploring Mars. Image courtesy of Framestore

“While there are a lot of touch screens and flat panels, as you might imagine for 2033, there are also still buttons. There’s a throttle, things that are very tactile,” Wilkes said. “We found in talking to astronaut consultants, tech consultants and even fighter jets, that there’s still a need for a relationship with controls. Our flight deck design is very much based on that methodology.”

James Garvin, NASA Goddard researcher and former chief scientist for Mars exploration, said he enjoyed how the show depicted the mission to Mars, though he noted that many of the final details on a real Mars mission will likely be different. As an example, he mentioned the early sketches of NASA’s Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

“When the robots finally flew, they didn’t look like our cartoons. Curiosity does not look like the ‘imagineerings’ we had in 2001,” said Garvin, who wasn’t involved in the production of the MARS series. “And that’s how engineering works.”

The early episodes of MARS also attempt to portray the brutal physicality that will likely accompany every stage of a journey to Mars.

Studio portions of MARS were filmed in Budapest, Hungary. Photo by  National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

Studio portions of MARS were filmed in Budapest, Hungary. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

“They will lose approximately one percent of their bone mass per month. They will certainly lose a lot of muscle mass,” Petranek said. Long-term residents of the International Space Station exercise 2.5 to three hours per day to the fight the muscle wasting, but there’s no remedy for the bone loss. Or for the fluid buildup found in the retinas of 20 percent of ISS astronauts.

Garvin found the physics in MARS and how the Daedalus astronauts responded to be more believable than the portrayal in the 2015 blockbuster The Martian.

Many worry about how lengthy exposure to cosmic radiation might influence Mars astronauts, but Petranek believes the biggest threat will bruises and bone breaks. It’s unclear if simple wounds would heal at the same rate in a Mars low-gravity environment.

“Somebody could fall off a cliff on Mars, and even though it’s 38 percent gravity, get really hurt,” Petranek said. “It would be absolutely crucial on the first voyage to include an emergency room physician.”

Inside MARS' fictional spaceship, the Daedalus. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

Inside MARS’ fictional spaceship, the Daedalus. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

Garvin agreed on the radiation question, saying he believes NASA and other space agencies will eventually engineer countermeasures. Right now, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is testing methods for space radiation shields as it orbits the moon. Final options might include water wall — the hydrogen in H2O is a great radiation repellant — or artificial magnetic field to mimic our planet’s defenses. But Garvin said medical capabilities are just one of many priorities.

“One of the models we’ve had is, quite frankly, that people don’t go outside much,” Garvin said. Instead, the first Mars explorer could stay inside engineered habitats, where they could easily pilot robotic rovers. This idea would provide more dexterity with these robots than be achieved with remote control from Earth, given the time delay in radio signals.

Ben Cotton and Clémentine Poidatz in MARS. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

Ben Cotton and Clémentine Poidatz in MARS. Photo by National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky

Petranek votes for sending two separate crews at once for the first Mars mission. One would serve as a rescue crew to reduce the odds of catastrophe and the potential loss of motivation toward future missions. Both Wilkes and Petranek believe such a voyage is on the horizon.

“We’ve always looked beyond. We looked beyond the ocean. We’ve looked up at the mountains,” Wilkes said. “But really, you look up at the sky, and on some level you wonder what’s out there. It’s human nature to want to explore like that.”

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