With all the hype around the prospect that we will set foot on Mars sometime in the next generation, National Geographic’s new Mars miniseries, beginning this week, is right one cue.
It’s 2033, and an international crew of six astronauts is preparing to head out on the seven-month journey with the entire world watching. The commander (Ben Cotton) delivers a speech to the crew about how they’ll all lose 10 percent of their bone mass en route and might go a little cuckoo from seeing another planet at least 35 million miles from home. A lot could go wrong, and they might not survive.
And off they go—Mars or bust.
That story—far more stylish and filmic than your typical nature-channel miniseries, thanks in large part to the executive production team of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer—is intercut with documentary interviews with NASA officials and scientists that smartly lay out the scientific concepts—like how we would use retropropulsion to land on Mars. Elsewhere Mars provides context after the fact, like establishing in the story that the crew overshot the Mars landing and then having the experts explain how the manned mission would follow unmanned missions that set up the habitat, power sources, etc.
There are also interviews with professional Mars cheerleaders like Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society. Actually, everyone interviewed here is a Mars cheerleader, and their hero—their Steve Jobs plus Buzz Aldrin—is Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla and the rocket company Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX. When one talking head in Mars calls SpaceX “nothing less than a massive game-changer,” you almost forget that we went to the moon and back before Elon Musk was born.
Mars doesn’t avoid the fact that a SpaceX rocket blew up during a test flight in 2014, casting it instead as part of the drama: There will be turbulence, but Elon Musk will get us to Mars, dammit. (The series does not, however, include the SpaceX rocket that exploded on its launch pad during a routine fueling in September, as the incident occurred after the series was completed. SpaceX had floated the possibility of sabotage by a competitor but said last week that the explosion was likely caused by fueling it with liquid oxygen that was well below the standard temperature.)
So why should we go to Mars? On a NatGeo clip, experts offer answers like “we are an exploring species” and “it’s an opportunity to unite people together.” That sort of philosophical mumbo-jumbo doesn’t explain away the unreasonable risk of a third SpaceX rocket exploding—this time with astronauts inside—or all the other things that could go wrong between here and the surface of Mars.
Andy Weir, who wrote the popular novel The Martian, offers a weightier reason. “We need to go to Mars because it protects us from extinction,” he says. “There’s all sorts of things that could happen on earth that kill all humans on the planet. But once humans are on two planets, the odds of extinction drop to nearly zero.” He sounds like he’s in a Christopher Guest mockumentary, and the entire premise of Mars begins to feel as weightless as George Clooney set adrift in Gravity.
A more practical reason to go to Mars is that manned space flights dating back to the 1960s have led to unforeseen technological innovations like velcro and carbon-fiber bikes. Going to Mars would undoubtedly launch another wave of scientific discovery, but that’s also true for other areas—solar panels, automobile batteries, nanotechnology, biomedical—where making additional investment would at least be reasonably calculated to solve actual problems.
Musk says in the series that going to Mars would be the “greatest adventure in human history.” His estimated $11 billion net worth from investments in Tesla and SpaceX—the latter heavily dependent on NASA—wouldn’t come close to funding the estimated $120 billion cost for the first mission. That would require a “public-private partnership,” by which he means the United States, China, European nations and other industrialized powers would pay most of the freight.
Mars is an interesting exploration into what drives us to discover the unknown, how a Mars mission might work and what technical hurdles we would need to overcome to make it happen. I just wish it had more to say about why we should do it at all.
The Mars miniseries premieres tonight on National Geographic at 9 p.m. ET/PT and will air on Mondays through December 19. The first episode is available now on National Geographic’s streaming apps for various platforms, and later episodes will be available the day after they air.