A spaceship is preparing to land on Mars when the crew notices that one of the thrusters isn’t firing. There is, as they say, a problem. But there’s no use telling Houston—by the time a distress message reaches home more than 30 million miles away, either the astronauts on board will be space dust or humanity will have become an interplanetary species.
That’s the premise of National Geographic’s new series, Mars, which mixes documentary and speculation to tell the parallel stories of two groups: the fictional future explorers who will make that first journey, and the pioneers of today—scientists, astronauts, and strategists—who are blazing the trail. In the premier episode, for example, that white-knuckle landing scene is spliced with a look at Elon Musk’s SpaceX as engineers test a real retropropulsion landing system.
Every piece of tech in the show was designed to accurately reflect the current scientific vision of how we’ll get to Mars—and to avoid the gaffes that have undermined recent films and invited the wrath of astrophysicist/space ombudsman Neil deGrasse Tyson. As executive producer Ron Howard puts it, “It’s not sci-fi!” (Indeed, President Obama has outlined a vision to send humans into Mars’ orbit by the mid-2030s.) Here’s how Mars envisions our red future.
The six astronauts in Mars travel to their new home in a rocket called the Daedalus, and their ship is based on science that’s more than simply plausible—it’s coming, and fast. “This is technology that will probably be tested in the next five years,” executive producer Justin Wilkes says. The spacecraft is heavily inspired by SpaceX, but it also borrows design elements from NASA, Boeing, and even the Russian space program. “Other films say ‘Let’s make it look cool,’” production designer Sophie Becher says. “We asked, ‘How’s this going to function? Where are they going to use the bathroom?’”
“Daedalus doesn’t have wings, but aerodynamically it’s almost like a space shuttle,” show adviser and spacesystems engineer Robert Braun says.
While it’s not shown in the series, Daedalus launches from low Earth orbit.
In the show, Daedalus lands on the planet directly rather than from an orbital docking station, using a protective aeroshell to absorb the friction of reentry and help the craft decelerate without, y’know, burning up. Supersonic retropropulsion further slows and stabilizes the ship. In the final seconds, legs deploy for greater stability.
Every item is labeled, barcoded, and stored in a payload racking system based on actual ISS storage protocol.
The onboard displays feature real data modeled on actual calculations. And don’t expect Minority Report holograms. “Astronauts want buttons,” Wilkes says. “You need redundancy.”
Braun says he answered design questions with real engineering: “How big does the environmental control and life supportsystem need to be for x number of astronauts for y number of days? How much recycling of water and oxygen can these systems handle before they have reliability issues?”
Astronaut and show adviser Mae Jemison flagged the ship bunks’ original open-air design: “You guys are looking at me while I’m sleeping?” Jemison says. “It would drive me crazy.” So the beds have privacy screens.
Emerging director Everardo Gout (Days of Grace) shot the Mars colony in Budapest and Morocco, where the topography is so similar to the Red Planet’s that NASA has tested rovers there. Producers picked a specific location on Mars to replicate: the foothills of Olympus Mons, the planet’s tallest mountain, where underground lava tubes provide shelter and protection from cosmic radiation. (Scientists are studying Mars-like isolation in the lava tubes of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii.) The first Mars settlers would construct a bare-bones underground habitat in the tubes; over time, future missions would deliver additional materials, and the colony would expand, module by module. Once the original six welcome more inhabitants, this is how they would live.
The nearest Ikea is millions of miles away, so settlers will rely on lightweight origami-style furniture and structures. “Everything’s modular: inflatable beds, inflatable furniture, fold-up furniture,” Becher says.
Subterranean lava tubes may offer the greatest radiation protection, so the show’s fictional settlers will go underground. “It’s like Homo sapiens have returned to our roots as cave dwellers,” Wilkes says. “Here we are on a new planet, and we’re huddling in a cave around a proverbial fire.”
Building on uneven ground in unpredictable conditions without bulldozers and cranes, settlers will have to improvise. The dwelling design is inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes: lightweight, inflatable modular structures that can be connected by flexible concertina-style corridors.
Pieces of Home
After consulting with Mae Jemison, who took a brightly hued Swatch watch and some colorful earrings into space, Becher added color to the living area. “No one wants to live in a place that’s completely alien,” Becher says. To make Mars more cozy—and less Star Trek—she spruced up Olympus Town with warm tones and family mementos.
Ask an Astronaut
How show adviser Mae Jemison kept Mars real.
Mae Jemison knows what it’s like to do brave work in dire conditions: She was a Peace Corps medical officer in Liberia and Sierra Leone. She’s also a former astronaut who became the first African American woman in space in 1992, aboard the Endeavour. Today she runs the 100 Year Starship project to support long-term interest in space exploration, and she was an adviser for Mars. It’s a good fit: She has some (very) strong opinions about how Hollywood gets space wrong.
What type of astronaut would take such a huge risk to go so very far away?
The world has changed because of going to the moon. People think it’s just the astronauts going up into space, but it’s the technology: Magnetic resonance imaging, miniaturization, GPS—we couldn’t have Pokémon Go without it! It’s about the mission and what we’re going to gain from it. These are pioneering days.
Why did you start the 100 Year Starship program?
Our tagline is “Space isn’t just for billionaires and astronauts.” It’s a place for everyone to participate. But we’re in this time period where our fantasyand our virtual reality havein some ways superseded what we do in reality. Our reality doesn’t seem as thrilling. So how do we include more people and make it more thrilling?
How did you advise the producers and the writers for Mars?
I wanted to help support the drama and the suspense with plausible operational and physiological activities: What would happen, logistically, in a particular circumstance? So you aren’t saying “Oh, come on now!”
What do most movies get wrong about astronauts?
When actors play astronauts, they often take them off the deep end. Astronauts are driven, but they’re not crazy. They’re passionate but practical, energetic but measured, decisive but willing tocompromise.
What else drives you crazy?
When I go to the movies, I can suspend disbelief, as long as it’s not egregious. But would people shout when things go to hell? No. You train so much on so many contingencies, you know how to do things. Think about it: If you’re all screaming on top of each other, you’re not going to be able to work it through. If you can’t hear, that’s a surefire way to get dead.
Interstellar did incredible work around relativistic physics, but they couldn’t have given a damn about biology. On Earth, you can’t grow grain and foodstuffs—but you’re driving through lush countryside with trees? You can’t figure out what else to eat?
When you resort to stuff that physically could not happen. Not like warp drive, but more that somebody didn’t take the time to think this through—like putting a hole in the glove in The Martian. Or my ship is all busted up, so my first reaction is to beat on all the control panels and the switches? What the hell? If I’m already about to die, I’d hit myself in the face before I’d beat on the panels!
This article appears in our special November issue, guest-edited by President Barack Obama. Subscribe now.
Daedalus and Olympus town artwork: courtesy of Framestore; all inset photographs: National Geographic Channels/Robert Vigalsky; illustration: Stanley chow