Minu­tiae of a mis­sion to Mars

Space travel is es­sen­tially a back­drop to the hu­man drama in The First, writes Stephen Armstrong

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - The First

On Jan­uary 28, 1986, NASA launched the Chal­lenger space shut­tle on a rou­tine mis­sion with a PR twist: a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was on board and would teach a few classes from space. Sev­enty-three sec­onds af­ter take­off, rub­ber seals failed, burn­ing gas melted through metal and the fuel tank blew up. The re­sult­ing ex­plo­sion ripped Chal­lenger to pieces live on tele­vi­sion in front of nearly 20 per cent of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion, in­clud­ing class­rooms of school­child­ren there to watch McAuliffe.

“We’d been lulled into think­ing space travel is safe,” says House of Cards writer Beau Wil­limon, ex­plain­ing why a ver­sion of the ac­ci­dent opens his vaunted Mars mis­sion drama, The First. “I think we’re back there now. With all the pri­vate-sec­tor rocket com­pa­nies and plans for crowd­funded mis­sions to Mars, we think space is rou­tine, safe and fun. One NASA en­gi­neer told me we will in­evitably lose peo­ple if we at­tempt to colonise an­other planet, and the pub­lic needs to get used to the dan­ger.”

This is why The First opens with a sim­i­lar crash — the first manned mis­sion to Mars go­ing up in a ball of flames. Star­ring Sean Penn as an ex­pe­ri­enced but dam­aged shut­tle pi­lot and Natascha McEl­hone as an ex­ces­sively fo­cused chief ex­ec­u­tive de­ter­mined to reach the red planet, it’s a metic­u­lously re­searched piece. Set 13 years into the fu­ture, it is de­fined by the 26month gap be­tween po­ten­tial win­dows for launch, which is pos­si­ble only when Mars’s or­bit brings it close to Earth. The first series sees Penn and McEl­hone pre­par­ing for a fol­low-up mis­sion just as Penn’s es­tranged junkie daugh­ter asks him for help with her re­cov­ery.

So it’s a show about the first flight to Mars that’s not re­ally a show about the first flight to Mars. Penn strug­gles to be there for his daugh­ter; just as they start talk­ing, he must pre­pare for a mis­sion that will take him away again. McEl­hone fails to soothe the fam­i­lies of the dead as­tro­nauts and has to fight to keep her dream alive. The spine of the piece is our fail­ure to com­mu­ni­cate with those we love. Then there’s space, ob­vi­ously, but that comes later.

It’s a piece Wil­limon has been wait­ing to write for years. His fa­ther, Henry, was a US navy cap­tain and worked as an en­gi­neer on nu­clear sub­marines; he would be away for five months at a time, test­ing Soviet de­fences, un­able to send mes­sages home.

Dur­ing those long voy­ages, Wil­limon would try to imag­ine what his dad was do­ing, where he might be. He sub­li­mated his an­guished cu­rios­ity by draw­ing sub­marines, mocked up in cross­sec­tion so he could draw his fa­ther and crew­mates go­ing about their work. The show so closely maps Wil­limon’s child­hood that Penn’s daugh­ter draws sim­i­lar pic­tures of her fa­ther in space. “One of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries, when we were sta­tioned at Pearl Har­bor, was Dad tak­ing me into a sub,” Wil­limon re­calls. “To a fouryear-old kid, it’s not a boat, it’s a space­ship.

“When I found out the dis­tance from Mars to Earth means as­tro­nauts have a 20-minute de­lay com­mu­ni­cat­ing with ground con­trol, I thought, if you record a mes­sage, send it, wait for them to record a re­ply and send it back, it’s an hour min­i­mum. That in­stant con­tact isn’t there, and I thought that gap was in­ter­est­ing.”

The series launched here on Ama­zon Prime Video last month, af­ter pre­mier­ing in Amer­ica on the stream­ing ser­vice Hulu in Septem­ber and on Chan­nel 4 in Bri­tain in Novem­ber. McEl­hone’s Laz In­gram — mod­elled on pri­vate space chief ex­ec­u­tives such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Mars One’s Bas Lans­dorp — has se­cured US gov­ern­ment fund­ing for a part­ner­ship to get hu­man­ity to the red planet.

“Read­ing [Musk and Lans­dorp’s] bi­ogra­phies, I was struck by their ab­so­lute be­lief that there is no fu­ture for mankind un­less we have the chance of mov­ing to an­other planet,” McEl­hone says.

“Laz isn’t sure if she has time for any­thing out­side work. The clock is tick­ing. She has one life, needs to get to Mars and can’t un­der­stand why ev­ery­one doesn’t think the same way.”

McEl­hone re­searched as­sid­u­ously, in­ter­view­ing peo­ple who might be ready to lead Mars One’s first manned mis­sion in 2031, from sci­en­tists to clean-energy en­gi­neers. “I’m not hugely sci­en­tific, so it was an up­hill strug­gle, but my kids are tech­ni­cally in­clined and my late hus­band, their fa­ther, was a sur­geon, so this helped to try to keep that alive.”

The show’s vi­sion of the fu­ture is an ex­ten­sion of ex­ist­ing or up­com­ing tech, Wil­limon ex­plains. The team worked with fu­tur­ists to imag­ine the two Cs — cars and com­mu­ni­ca­tion — and with NASA to imag­ine a “Mars tran­sit ve­hi­cle” ca­pa­ble of mak­ing the jour­ney. Phones no longer ex­ist; we have tiny hands-free head­sets and mi­cro­phones that are barely vis­i­ble. New cars are elec­tric, voice-con­trolled and au­ton­o­mous. There are echoes of the se­quences in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which Stan­ley Kubrick de­lighted in por­tray­ing the mun­dan­i­ties of space travel.

For the space stuff, they hired former as­tro­nauts in­clud­ing Michael Lopez-Ale­gria, a shut­tle vet­eran. “You’re trained so hard that the launch is at first what you ex­pect,” he ex­plains. “Then you be­gin to float and see the whole of the Earth, and some part of you is blown away.”

That lack of an emo­tional an­chor is what makes the voy­age wor­thy of a long-form drama, Wil­limon ex­plains. “If you’re in a can with a small group of peo­ple on a mis­sion you won’t re­turn from, you’re go­ing to be in an amaz­ingly com­pli­cated frame of mind — and that com­bi­na­tion of am­bi­tion, madness and con­se­quences is what I love about writ­ing. Space, pol­i­tics — they’re only sto­ries be­cause they help us to un­der­stand what it is to be hu­man.” is stream­ing on Ama­zon Prime Video.

Sean Penn, left, and James Ran­sone in The First; be­low, Penn with co-star Natascha McEl­hone and the show’s cre­ator Beau Wil­limon

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