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