‘Mars’ looks at fu­ture of space travel

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - LIVING - By Rob Low­man South­ern Cal­i­for­nia News Group

De­spite en­thu­si­as­tic sci-fi fans and plenty of films set in space, there has been lit­tle ac­tu­ally done in the past few decades to move be­yond Earth’s or­bit.

The last as­tro­nauts — Eu­gene Cer­nan and Har­ri­son Sch­mitt of Apollo 17 — left the moon Dec. 14, 1972. Since then, space ex­plo­ration pi­loted by hu­mans has been put on the back burner, with ex­per­i­ments mostly lim­ited to those on­board the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

Re­cently, Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian” and the movie that fol­lowed helped to re-in­spire the idea of travel to the Red Planet. Like Stephen Pe­tranek, au­thor of “How We’ll Live on Mars,” Weir be­lieves it is an im­per­a­tive that hu­mans col­o­nize our plan­e­tary neigh­bor.

“Some 70,000 years ago, there was a su­per vol­cano that went off that killed all but 10,000 hu­mans. We are all key de­scen­dants of those 10,000 hu­mans, be­cause they were the only sur­vivors,” ex­plains Weir. “Of course, we could still just nuke our­selves right out of ex­is­tence. But if mankind has two plan­ets, if we have a self-suf­fi­cient pop­u­la­tion on an­other planet, then our odds of ex­tinc­tion drop to nearly zero.”

So it’s no sur­prise that Weir and Pe­tranek are part of the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Chan­nel’s new six-part event se­ries “Mars,” which com­bines the dra­ma­tized story of a mis­sion to the Red Planet in 2033 with real sci­en­tists and ex­perts dis­cussing the needs and real ob­sta­cles in such an un­der­tak­ing.

“A lot of the en­gi­neer­ing that is tak­ing place to­day will be the en­gi­neer­ing that will power that mis­sion in 2033,” says ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Justin Wilkes of Rad­i­calMe­dia. “So we would get into sit­u­a­tions where we’re us­ing a lot of heads-up dis­play tech­nol­ogy that to­day isn’t quite where it will be in 2033, but it’s a leap that you can prob­a­bly be­lieve.”

Pe­tranek thinks that “if no one can get to Mars eco­nom­i­cally, no one will end up liv­ing there.” SpaceX founder Elon Musk — one of the talk­ing heads in the pro­gram — has an­nounced plans to col­o­nize Mars.

Last month, Pres­i­dent Obama made one last push for ex­plo­ration of Mars, a pro­gram that he set in mo­tion six years ago. How­ever, with a new ad­min­is­tra­tion com­ing in it be­comes a real ques­tion how much de­sire Amer­i­cans have for space ex­plo­ration.

As the pres­i­dent pointed out, “the first space race con­trib­uted im­mea­sur­ably im­por­tant tech­no­log­i­cal and med­i­cal ad­vances” to the world and the U.S, econ­omy. It also in­spired a new gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists, and Obama sees the con­tin­u­ing of the Mars pro­gram as a way of keep­ing Amer­ica on the cut­ting edge of to­mor­row’s ad­vances.

While the drama is set in 2033, “Mars” film­mak­ers use “flash­backs” to 2016 so it can show what is be­ing de­vel­oped now at places like SpaceX and NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory.

“I work on a lot of real mis­sions, ro­botic mis­sions to Mars,” says for­mer NASA chief tech­nol­o­gist Dr. Robert D. Braun. “One of the best things about this se­ries was get­ting a chance to work with writ­ers and pro­duc­ers who really cared about get­ting it right. So it was much more than I was the science guy off in the corner. It was very in­ter­ac­tive, and that helped a lot, I think, to make it real.”

“Mars is a very dif­fer­ent place than the Earth. So if you’re not used to work­ing and liv­ing on Mars, you don’t ex­pect it to be the way it is,” notes Weir. “So the sky’s dif­fer­ent col­ors. The sound trav­els dif­fer­ent on Mars. The at­mos­phere is much dif­fer­ent. Grav­ity’s much dif­fer­ent. It takes some time to un­der­stand that. But this team, I can tell you, was very care­ful about get­ting it ac­cu­rate.”

If you saw or read “The Martian,” you know a trip to the Red Planet is hardly a week­end jaunt.

A space­craft with hu­mans on­board would take roughly six months to travel to Mars and an­other six months to travel back, ac­cord­ing to NASA. In ad­di­tion, as­tro­nauts would have to stay 18 to 20 months there be­fore the plan­ets re­align for a re­turn trip, mak­ing the mis­sion roughly 2½ years.

While there, the crew would have to over­come the plan­ets harsh con­di­tions, in­clud­ing a thin at­mos­phere.

“We know that we will need to be able to take oxy­gen out of a car­bon diox­ide at­mos­phere on Mars in or­der to have that for the as­tro­nauts,” says Jen­nifer Tros­per from NASA Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory. There is a Mars 2020 Rover ex­per­i­ment sched­uled in 2021 that is meant to deal with that is­sue, she adds.

The only way we are go­ing to get to Mars, though, is if it is cheap enough, which is why Musk is work­ing on the con­cept of reusabil­ity. Last sum­mer, after a num­ber of fail­ures, SpaceX suc­cess­fully landed a rocket that had been launched into space back at Cape Canaveral.

“When peo­ple look back in time and say, “How did we get to Mars,” they’ll ref­er­ence that day,” says Wilkes. “That’s our Apollo mo­ment, and we were for­tu­nate enough to be there to cap­ture it.”

Any manned mis­sion to Mars will have to have a num­ber of mis­sions to the planet be­fore then, set­ting up sup­plies and in­clud­ing things such as 3D print­ers to make things on the planet.

Un­til then, Red Planet en­thu­si­asts will have to make due with watch­ing Nat Geo’s “Mars,” ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.

“This se­ries a very vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Ever­ardo Gout, the docu-drama’s di­rec­tor. “Think a lit­tle of ‘Das Boot,’ but in space where you’re there with the char­ac­ters and you’re feel­ing with them and it’s all about that greed and that sweat and blood and ev­ery­thing that you would ex­pe­ri­ence if you were the sev­enth pas­sen­ger with them.”

Even Weir ad­mits a Mars mis­sion poses more ob­sta­cles than what we face here.

“In terms of pop­u­la­tion pres­sure or en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns or any­thing like that,” the au­thor says, “I guar­an­tee you what­ever the prob­lems are on Earth, it’s eas­ier to fix Earth than it is to go to Mars.”

NA­TIONAL GE­O­GRAPHIC CHAN­NELS/ROBERT VIGLASKY

A meet­ing at the In­ter­na­tional Mars Science Foun­da­tion, IMSF. The global event se­ries “Mars” pre­mieres Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. in the U.S. and in­ter­na­tion­ally Sun­day, Nov. 13, on the Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Chan­nel.

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