On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission became the first spaceflight to land humans on the Moon. It was a momentous achievement and effectively ended the space race, occurring just eight years after John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, declared the U.S. would send man to the Moon before the decade was out.
In the not-so-distant future, mankind’s brightest minds want to bring humans to a new frontier: Mars. The dream of colonizing the Red Planet remains humanity’s next great objective, but can it actually be done? That’s exactly what National Geographic channel’s new show aims to answer.
Airing Monday nights, MARS is a fascinating new miniseries that falls into the “docudrama” genre. Part documentary, part science fiction, the show uses scripted scenes and present-day interviews with some of today’s foremost experts, people such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk. Even The Martian author Andy Weir lends his expertise.
“[By going to Mars], we’ll understand the evolution and formation of our own solar system,” explains Jennifer Heldmann, planetary scientist at NASA. “We can start to understand how planets form and how they evolve. We can also start to understand the distribution of life in the universe.”
But getting to Mars will be no easy feat. And if we do get there, colonists will be faced with many struggles, not least of which will be surviving the planet’s harsh climate. MARS goes to great lengths to accurately portray what such a journey would be like, switching between the dueling viewpoints to tell a compelling narrative.
The fiction portion of the show sees six astronauts launching to Mars in the year 2033—a decade NASA has already targeted for possible colonization. During the descent into the planet’s atmosphere, however, the crew notices one of the thrusters isn’t firing, posing the first problem of many.
While this portion is considered science fiction, it’s more fact than you might think. The rocket Daedalus, for example, is based on technology that’s already being built. Meanwhile, SpaceX, the company founded by Tesla’s Elon Musk, has been testing reusable rockets with an endgame of Mars in mind. Earlier this year, Musk unveiled SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), which he hopes will one day shuttle humans to the Red Planet.
“We stand on the grandest stage of all time — the dark void of interplanetary space — with the brightest 21st century visionaries to light our way,” said producer Brian Grazer in a statement last year when the show was first announced. “By blending awe-inspiring imagery and narrative with present-day footage and interviews, we hope that MARS will change the way we see our place in the cosmos and the mysteries that lie beyond.”
The dueling narrative makes for a compelling and authentic experience for the viewer. By interviewing experts, we see the people who are actively trying to get humans to Mars. Conversely, the scripted portion imagines the trials and tribulations a mission might face.
MARS winds up being a more authentic entertainment experience as a result. Not only are audiences thrilled by the fictional mission taking place, but they’re educated about how humans might one day get to the Red Planet. Some of the scripted sequences were even shot in Budapest and Morocco, where the topography best mimics the Martian planet’s.
In the show, producers also picked a real Mars location, Olympus Mons, the planet’s tallest mountain. According to Wired, lava tubes are found at the location, which may provide visitors shelter and protection from the planet’s cosmic radiation. So, if colonization were possible, it would be underground, and gradually expand from there.
Meanwhile, the spacesuits featured in the show are as close to scientifically-accurate as possible, based on the BioSuit concept developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
If you’re at all interested in Mars—perhaps spurned by Andy Weir’s The Martian—National Geographic’s new show is a fascinating, compelling way to get your fix.
The miniseries will run for six episodes through the end of December, with episode two airing tonight. To learn more about Mars (the planet, not the show), National Geographic has a lot of really great information on its website.