National Geographic (“NatGeo”) has launched their MARS mini-series to be aired every Monday evening for a total of six weeks. It’s a fictional drama set in the year 2033 imagining the first human mission to the surface of Mars with a huge focus on the scientific accomplishments necessary to make such a journey reality. Cut in with the drama are interviews with scientists explaining the complexities of the mission being imagined including, of course, our favorite Mars-bound-humanity-game-changer, Elon Musk.
Elon’s role in the first episode was to talk about the “big picture” challenges immediately apparent in a Mars mission:
- The risks of getting to Mars
- The adventure of it all
- The historical significance of launching from Pad 39A
- Why Mars is a goal to begin with
- Why landing on Mars is hard
- The importance of rocket reusability
- How fast we could establish a Mars colony
There’s been critique that the NatGeo series was essentially a big commercial for SpaceX and Elon. While the intention was (probably) not such, I can’t really argue that the impact (outcome?) wasn’t similar to a commercial. Elon wasn’t significantly over-featured versus others, but all of the modern-day rocket footage they used featured Falcon 9 and the SpaceX facilities.
Honestly though, when you’ve been both leading the charge and are arguably the biggest player (i.e., rocket company) in the Mars game, a realistic drama series featuring humanity’s first trip to the red planet is probably going to include you in a major way. And seriously, how awkward would it be pretending otherwise?
Prequels to the NatGeo MARS Series
In the weeks leading up to the premiere of their MARS series debut, NatGeo published plenty of relevant videos in order to keep curious minds, well, curious and in anticipation for the series. There were three videos that stood out most to me:
- “Before MARS”
Featuring twin girls that become significant players in the main MARS series, this video gave a short coming-of-age backstory wherein one of the sisters embraces her interest in space science via a ham radio/wise neighbor experience. I thought it was well done and a sweet tale, but kind of missed the “feels” it was supposed to inspire. Perhaps as the girls’ characters are fleshed out in the coming episodes, it will have more impact.
- “Is it okay to touch Mars?” by Vsauce1 (YouTube channel)
This video wasn’t published by NatGeo, but is was sponsored by them and host Michael Stevens promoted the MARS series throughout while discussing the science behind it. There were plenty of interesting Mars topics not generally discussed such as space “bugs” infecting the Earth and rover scientists living by “Mars time”. I found it to be a good primer for the series.
- “NatGeo Live | Sending Humans to Mars: How will we do it?”
This video featured a panel of three scientists answering questions about the challenges of a Mars mission after showing clips from the series. Automation, 3D printing, and terraforming were the primary featured topics after general discussion of mission requirements. There was disagreement on the topic of terraforming Mars that I thought was very interesting and recommend watching.
After watching and reading through most of the material published on this series, there were a few interesting things I noted and wanted to share for fun:
- The spaceship carrying the Mars astronauts in the series is called “Daedalus”, named after the Greek god who fathered the infamous waxed-wing god Icarus (great Iron Maiden song, too). In the 1986 movie “Space Camp” (starring Kate Capshaw and Leah Thompson), the space station whose oxygen tank reserves save the kids from certain death in space is also called “Daedalus”. Uh, sorry for the spoiler.
- Mars already has an unofficial flag: A tricolor rectangle of red, green, and blue. Each color represents the stages of terraforming the planet from its current red state, to green from vegetation, and finally to blue like Earth. The colors were also inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars.
- In the “Before Mars” video, ham/amateur radio is a big feature, even allowing one of the girls to communicate with the International Space Station. It actually is possible to communicate with the ISS via ham radio. Astronauts reach out on their free time regularly.
Overall, I thought NatGeo did a great job on the series, intertwining drama with the science to give the viewer an understanding of where we are, where we are going, and why it’s so tough to do it. The series especially shines if you’re looking for a kind of “one-stop” place for all that information in an entertaining way. Unfortunately though, if you’ve been reading about the march towards Mars for some time now, there isn’t much added other than a different perspective and storyline to consider.
I’m looking forward to the coming episodes and, of course, seeing what else Elon has to say along the way. Next up on my playlist: NatGeo’s “Before the Flood” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and featuring our guy Elon.
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