The six-part miniseries from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer chronicles the first humans on Mars, and premieres November 14 on its flagship TV channel (though you can stream the first episode now.) Its novel format intersperses scripted drama with documentary footage and interviews with real-life space pioneers such as Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, astronaut Scott Kelly, and NASA Planetary Science Division director James Green.
Nat Geo is using the series to cement a company-wide repositioning as the content leader in science, exploration, and adventure, under the tagline “Further,” and unifying its brand across platforms, global channels, and joint venture with 21st Century Fox. Beyond the singular storytelling approach, Mars will involve its largest cross-platform effort to date to educate viewers and inspire STEM education. It includes a National Geographic magazine cover story, coffee-table book, virtual reality experience, Royal Observatory Greenwich exhibit in London; global screenings in Europe and Mexico; children’s media and related educational materials; ongoing coverage on the Nat Geo website and social media, and a now-streaming digital series, Before Mars, chronicling the backstory of Mars characters Hana and Joon Seung.
Mars chronicles the first human landing there in 2033, inspired by Stephen Petranek’s nonfiction book How We’ll Live on Mars and punctuated by present-day interviews with pioneers paving the way for an eventual real-life human landing. The interviews explain the hurdles and challenges they face and the reasons for undertaking such a journey.
“We don’t refer to it as science fiction; it’s actually science fact. Everything you’re seeing is real. It’s going to be what that mission will actually entail,” Mars executive producer Justin Wilkes told Television Critics Association reporters this summer. “The story takes place in the year 2033, and then we flashback to 2016, when we actually see the documentary portions of the show and hear from our big thinkers giving context for the actual engineering taking place toward that mission in the future.”
The scripted production shot 40 days over three months, while the documentary had Nat Geo crews embedded in SpaceX for a year and visiting NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which helms the Mars rover missions. Much of the documentary footage will also be repurposed for elementary through high school STEM curricula.
“As we go to Mars and people begin to figure out, ‘Wow, this is going
to happen in a decade,’ there’s going to be an entire resurgence in science education that will really transform the country and the world,” says Petranek.
The program’s commitment to accuracy involved a coterie of science advisors that included astrophysicist and Nat Geo Emerging Explorer Jedidah Isler, Petranek, JPL’s Curiosity mission manager Jennifer Trosper, and Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut in space.
“The writers, producers, and staff really cared about getting it right, and so it was much more than being the science guy off in the corner,” says consulting scientist Robert Braun, professor of space technology at Georgia Institute of Technology. “It was very interactive, and that helped a lot to make it real.”
For example, the show depicts technology that removes oxygen from a carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere, borrowed from an experimental instrument—the Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE)—gracing the Mars 2020 rover. “I feel like we’re the boots on the ground for the things you’re seeing in this visionary series,” says JPL’s Trosper.
Jemison trained several of the actors, putting them through space boot camp and exams. “We had to go to class every day, and I was like, whoa, I’m an actor! Just give me the lines and I’ll say it,” says Sammi Rotibi, who plays roboticist Robert Foucault. “But actually, she schooled us on what it was like to be an astronaut and the experience of doing that. And then we had to take a test at the end of the week. That was no joke.”
“There is a cycle between the entertainment and space industries,” notes The Martian author Andy Weir, who appears in the documentary footage. “The more scientifically accurate space-related content that gets made, the more public interest there is in the space program, the more funding it gets, the more things they accomplish, then the more public interest there is in entertainment. And it just goes around like that and is actually part of the process that will get us to Mars in real life.”
The production design only slightly modernizes the present. “The technology today that’s sending astronauts to space, particularly in the Russian space program, is still leveraging Soyuz capsule technology that’s been around since the ’60s,” says Wilkes. “If you’re going to send a mission to Mars, you want to make sure there’s redundancy and you don’t want anything too cutting-edge. So a lot of the engineering today will be the engineering that will power that mission in 2033. We’re using a lot of display technology that isn’t quite where it will be in 2033, but it’s a leap you can probably believe. The mission control that our production designer designed is as high-tech-looking as SpaceX’s mission control, which is using a lot of flat panel technology.”
Other design flourishes came from personal anecdotes, like Mae’s experiences flying aboard the Endeavour space shuttle. “Astronauts still like buttons,” adds Wilkes. “So even though you might have a control panel that’s all touch-screen or flat-screen like in an Airbus A380 or a 747 today, you still want to have a throttle; you still want to have a button. It’s this tactile, human thing that psychologically still works. So we erred on the side of technology that does exist today, that might slightly evolve in the future but not to the extent that it’s science fiction.”
Another Mars advancement addresses mission economics by creating a single conglomerate of the world’s space agencies. “There is no one space agency that could handle the cost of going to Mars, so we have to put together NASA, with Roscosmos [Russia’s Roscomos State Corporation for Space Activities], with JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] and other nations, with all the SpaceXs of the world to physically do that,” says director Everardo Gout. “By doing so, we’re pulling resources, cast, and technicians from all over the world, so it’s a symbiosis between the show and the reality of how are we making the show.”
Humankind isn’t safe on Earth, and if there’s any hope for the survival of the species, it needs to develop sustainable bases on other planets and, eventually, other solar systems.
“If there is a catastrophe, our species could be wiped out,” says Weir. “Sixty-five million years ago, there was a meteor strike that killed everything that didn’t burrow. Seventy thousand years ago, a super volcano killed all but 10,000 humans. We are their key descendants. And, of course, we could just nuke ourselves right out of existence. But if mankind has a self-sufficient population on another planet, then our odds of extinction drop to nearly zero.
“Mars could be terraformed given enough time and money,” he adds. “The runaway greenhouse affect that we’re desperately trying to avoid here, we could deliberately provoke on Mars. It would start melting Mars’s polar caps, which are made of carbon dioxide, and create a thicker atmosphere that retains more heat and starts melting water on the surface and it would become much more Earth-like. That could be done in as few as several decades.”
Mars is actually part of a longer journey. “Eventually our sun begins to die and it consumes the Earth,” says Petranek. “Mars is just a stepping-stone, a practice area. We have to learn how to get out of this solar system and find another Earth-like planet in another solar system, and that could be light years away. That is a very awesome piece of imagination and technology that we don’t possess now. And the only way we’re going to get there is to begin the process.”