‘Mars’ looks at future of space travel
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.”
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.