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The series Mars depicts a future fictional expedition to Mars alongside documentary coverage of ongoing efforts to send humans to Mars. (credit: National Geographic)

Red Planet blues: popular entertainment and the settlement of Mars (part 2)


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So why, exactly, do we want to settle Mars?

“We”—the collective “we”—don’t really want to settle Mars. Sure, there are a few people who want to do this, and there are people who think it is important but don’t do anything more than argue that somebody else, not them, should do it. Despite the fact that people have been more or less seriously studying sending humans to Mars for decades, nobody is currently spending the kind of money and resources required to actually mount a human mission to Mars, let alone establish a permanent settlement there. Mars One? Nope. SpaceX? Nope. Anybody? Nope. There is no collective agreement on that point. There is no “we.”

There are two different questions that the experts in the series seem to be answering: why send humans to Mars? and why settle Mars? The former question is easier to answer than the latter, but the answers do overlap and are often muddled together.

A better formulation of that question is why do some people think that humanity should establish a settlement on Mars? The most common answer is to serve as a kind of species insurance policy in case something wipes out humanity on Earth. Of course, once you start down that logic path, it quickly unravels, because it is hard to imagine any disaster that would wipe out all of humanity on Earth, and it is also easier to imagine a fragile human outpost on Mars collapsing on its own—maybe when the water filtration system catches fire, or a nasty influenza virus runs through the population, or an inhabitant goes crazy, or… you get the point. Small isolated groups are inherently more vulnerable than large dispersed populations. It is also easier to imagine that a catastrophe on Earth that cuts it off from Mars would crash the Mars colony as well.

The “eggs in multiple baskets” justification is voiced by The Martian author Andy Weir in the first episode of the National Geographic Channel’s ambitious miniseries Mars. Mars features a fictionalized story about a six-person crew trying to establish the first Martian settlement interspersed with present-day footage and interviews with people studying and exploring and dreaming about the red planet today. Other people, including Elon Musk and Robert Zubrin, also talk about reasons to send humans to Mars in the episode, but they are nothing you have not heard before: to challenge humanity, to satisfy our urge to explore, and so on.

There are two different questions that the experts in the series seem to be answering: why send humans to Mars? and why settle Mars? The former question is easier to answer than the latter, but the answers do overlap and are often muddled together. None of these reasons is as basic—and satisfying—as the reasons that have driven major settlements and explorations in the past: to find gold, to open a trade route to India, to flee religious repression, to kill the natives and take their land. Because nobody in the American or foreign space programs, or their supporters, critics, or enthusiasts, have satisfactorily answered this question, we should not expect a TV miniseries to convincingly answer it. But it does linger in the background throughout the fictional segments of the series. It looks very unpleasant, and they are often worried, frightened and exhausted, so why exactly are they doing this?

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An astronaut and a rover on Mars. (credit: National Geographic)

Red ambitions

National Geographic deserves kudos for taking on this subject in such a big way. Clearly they have raised their sights, and with Mars have ventured into new territory for the channel: drama. This is not a science show about Mars the planet. Rather, it is about the people today working to send people to Mars in the future, and many of the issues and challenges involved in making that happen. What is somewhat surprising is the tone. The opening credits appear to be inspired by HBO’s True Detective, with dark swirling images of brain neurons and storm clouds and fire, and a singer mumbling about Mars being “cold and unknown.” It is frightening, and instead of a bombastic orchestral score and stunning Martian vistas, which we would expect, it looks like the opening of a horror movie. Overall, the drama is grim and depressing; will viewers really want to watch six episodes about a group of miserable people dying on Mars?

The present-day non-fiction documentary style footage is preceded with the label “2016” in huge type and the fictionalized footage is preceded by an equally large “2033.” The filmmakers have complicated their format by having “pre-flight interview” segments with the fictional astronauts, and the second episode also included flashbacks to a fictional astronaut’s childhood. All of this was relatively easy to follow, although I’ve read a number of complaints from people who found it confusing and would have preferred either a documentary or a drama, not both mixed together. But there’s no reason for television to spoon-feed the audience, and Mars is not undone by its ambition. We’ve dumbed-down enough things in our society, and anybody confused by the time jumps is free to change the channel.

There’s no reason for television to spoon-feed the audience, and Mars is not undone by its ambition. We’ve dumbed-down enough things in our society, and anybody confused by the time jumps is free to change the channel.

The series premiered on November 14 and so far has aired half of its episodes (the fourth episode airs tonight). Each episode so far has sought to tie its current-day non-fiction segments with the unfolding story in its 2033 segments. Episode one focused on SpaceX’s efforts to build a first stage rocket that could land vertically at its launch site, and the fictional story dealt with landing a very tall rocket on Mars. Episode two followed NASA astronaut Scott Kelly who spent nearly a year in space so that doctors could study the toll that spaceflight took on his body, and the fictional segment dealt with an injured astronaut on Mars and the struggle he and his crew faced to get to safety. Episode three dealt with the difficulties NASA and other space agencies have confronted with getting spacecraft to Mars and some of what they have discovered about the planet, and the fictional segments depicted the astronauts facing various risks on Mars, including balky equipment, fire, oxygen and resource depletion, and radiation exposure.

There are in fact times when this alternating timeframe provides wonderful emotional, psychological, and philosophical insights. For example, the second episode not only addressed the human hazards of spaceflight, but the ties between people in space and their family back home. There are great comments by former astronauts John Grunsfeld and Jim Lovell. Grunsfeld says that people who go to space have to be comfortable leaving their loved ones behind, and Lovell explained that the ones left behind have to be comfortable being left, but it is also important to believe that the cause is worth that hardship. Mars advocate Bob Zubrin can often be zealous, blunt, and downright nasty when standing in front of an audience—he has dismissed aerospace medicine concerns and the doctors who raise them by saying that it is a field created by Nazi doctors. But, perhaps because of judicious editing, Zubrin comes across much better in front of a camera, at one point asking if a “good life” means living a comfortable life, or a life doing bold things?

The first episode of Mars, called “Novo Mundo,” was primarily a 42-minute commercial for SpaceX, and viewers who know nothing about the space program would conclude after watching it that SpaceX is the only organization actually doing anything regarding Mars. During the episode, the word “NASA” appeared on screen twice and was spoken once—by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk when referring to an old NASA launch pad. In contrast, the word “SpaceX” was spoken seven times, and appeared on screen dozens of times. “Jet Propulsion Laboratory” was also not spoken during the episode. Of course JPL and NASA have already put spacecraft in orbit around Mars and landed them on the surface multiple times—and SpaceX has not.

Admittedly the show’s producers wanted to attach their show to a flaming arrow, and Elon Musk and SpaceX are dominating the space zeitgeist at the moment (Musk is also currently providing the voice for an animated version of himself in episodes of South Park.) But the SpaceX hype was so one-sided that it distorted reality. Forget NASA, JPL, or Lockheed Martin, or the Europeans, Russians, Chinese, and Indians, for that matter, all of whom are working on Mars spacecraft and/or have some at Mars already. SpaceX, the episode practically yells, is Mars.

The first episode of Mars was primarily a 42-minute commercial for SpaceX, and viewers who know nothing about the space program would conclude after watching it that SpaceX is the only organization actually doing anything regarding Mars.

The non-fiction segments of the second episode focused on Scott Kelly and his extended space mission, although the episode was relatively light on the details of what actually happens to the human body in space. It’s not good, the audience was told, although the producers seem to have decided that science facts might be too much for their audience to handle, so they stick more to emotions. Space popularizer Neil DeGrasse Tyson (who reacts to a television camera the same way that my dog reacted to a rumpling potato chip bag) provided the best description of Mars as a place to live. Tyson noted that superficially, Mars seems a lot like Earth, with an atmosphere, seasons, even water. But this is all deceptive, and Mars is cold, dry, and more hostile than anyplace on Earth.

Scott Kelly was shown onboard the International Space Station but also with his remarkably thoughtful teenage daughter, who discussed how anxious she was about what might happen to her dad in orbit but also her overall faith in NASA. Kelly had the best line of the program so far when he described a rocket launch: “It’s kinda like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel while you’re on fire. As soon as you realize you’re not gonna die, it’s the most fun you ever had.”

The third episode’s non-fiction segments provided some of the best imagery of Mars, showing its complicated terrain in false-color images with various people stressing how difficult it has been to send robotic spacecraft there. The episode also included gorgeous high-definition footage of rockets blowing up in the spectacular way that rockets blow up. The producers cleverly included some low-definition video footage of stunned scientists and engineers at JPL in 1999 as they heard the bad news about a lost Mars spacecraft. After three episodes, the non-fiction segments have shown a bunch of primarily NASA and JPL Mars spacecraft, but only mentioned three of them by name: Mariner 4, Mars Polar Lander (which crashed on Mars) and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars. Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the rest, which have all done so much to improve our understanding of Mars, have so far gone unrecognized.

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The astronauts on Mars don’t smile a lot. (credit: National Geographic)

Red drama

Edited together, the non-fiction segments of the series would create a good documentary on their own. They look outstanding on a high-definition large screen television. But the producers decided to try something new for National Geographic and weave in a story of human struggle on the Red Planet. These segments have tended to be the weaker part of the series. For starters, the actors are all unknowns, and most of them are not American or native-English speakers. Their accents made them difficult to understand, particularly over the background noise of a rocket landing or when arguing with each other.

Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the first episode was that when the crewmembers finally step onto the surface—the first humans to set foot on another planet—they say… nothing. Nothing at all.

Mars is intended as a “global event series,” presumably meaning that National Geographic is trying to publicize it worldwide (they have established an impressive, but confusing, website.) Maybe these actors are recognized in their home countries, but several times I found myself reaching for the closed captioning button to figure out what they were saying. Worse, none of the actors is particularly good, and none of their characters has any personality, let alone charisma. Watch the first ten minutes of The Martian and you immediately like Mark Watney because Matt Damon is an actor who can make you care about his character. But three episodes into Mars and I didn’t care one bit if any of these people lived or died.

In the first episode the landing craft goes far off course and the mission commander is gravely wounded, setting up the primary conflict for the next few episodes. The Martian threw one calamity after another at Mark Watney, but he faced adversity with dark humor and inventiveness, and an upbeat disco soundtrack counterpointing the seriousness of his predicament. The fictional segments of Mars are overwhelmingly grim and humorless. The music is depressing and it isn’t until the end of the third episode that anybody even smiles.

Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the first episode was that when the crewmembers finally step onto the surface—the first humans to set foot on another planet—they say… nothing. Nothing at all. Instead of some stirring words about stepping boldly onto a new world and claiming it for humanity or something philosophical or symbolic, they simply look at each other dumbfounded.

Who are they? They’re blanks. They all look depressed and grumpy for most of the first three episodes.

The second episode, “Grounded,” had the crew trekking across the Martian surface trying to reach a laboratory module. They start out in a pressurized rover, and when that breaks down, they set out on foot. Their commander, Ben, is badly injured and has refused medical care from their doctor. We see flashbacks—Ben’s hallucinations?—to his childhood, when his father took him out into the desert to demonstrate the size of the solar system. Eventually the crew reaches the laboratory module, but Ben has been too badly injured, and he dies.

In the third episode, “Pressure Drop,” the five surviving crewmembers have been struggling to get their equipment running, and an overloaded circuit catches fire and nearly kills them all. Now they’re in even worse shape, and have to find an underground cavern with water ice. They need the cave to protect their inflatable habitat from radiation, and they need to mine the ice for oxygen and water.

This leads to one of the show’s most spectacular and nonsensical scenes. Having found a hole of unknown depth in a collapsed lava tube, they lower one of the astronauts down on a cable, not sure if she is ever going to touch bottom. Why they did not simply lower the cable with a camera and a flashlight first isn’t clear. Greek and Roman mariners used sounding lines—a weight on the end of a rope—to measure water depth, so certainly a group of Ph.D. astronauts could have figured out something similar for their cave. It is only at the very end of the episode that we learn that the cave is not too deep and also has an ice supply. The mission is saved.

Back on Earth we see that the public-private partnership behind the mission is fraying. The public part is an international coalition of space agencies interested in Mars science. The private part is a group of investors primarily led by billionaire visionary Ed Grann. There are somber meetings of course, and the investors have cold feet. But the cave discovery lifts their spirits and encourages them to spend billions more.

One of the rules of fiction is to show, not tell. But the fictional segments don’t really follow this rule. The drama frequently slams to a halt both for the documentary segments and the “pre-flight interview” segments, which primarily consist of characters telling us who they are in response to questions. Thus, a member of the crew is asked what kind of leader Ben is and we’re told that he’s a good leader, etc. But who are these people? What motivates them? What do they love, fear, want? Do they have any hobbies? Does Hana Seung watch baseball and play tennis and love Bugs Bunny cartoons and hate the smell of coffee? What about Amelie and Ava and Marta and Javier and Robert? Who are they? They’re blanks. They all look depressed and grumpy for most of the first three episodes.

Even the few efforts to humanize the characters are not uplifting. The only character who has any family is Seung, who gazes off into the distance while endlessly talking about missing her twin sister back in mission control on Earth. But all of her family stories are bummers: they moved a lot as kids, they have no real place to call home, her sister was not chosen for the mission. It’s all generally a downer. The crew clearly needs anti-depressants.

Maybe, if the goal is to save the human species in case the Earth gets wiped out, the hardships of Mars would be acceptable inconveniences. But morally there is something deeply troubling about a plan that prioritizes saving a small number of humans while allowing, or tolerating, the deaths of billions of people back home.

Perhaps the irony of the show is that technically, this might be the most psychologically accurate portrayal of a Mars mission ever filmed: everybody is struggling very hard, nobody is having any fun, nobody is happy, everybody gets on each other’s nerves, and they’re all constantly facing hardship and death. We know for a fact that Mars has no breathable atmosphere, it’s really cold, you’d have to live underground most of the time, and to top it all off, Mars smells pretty bad—lots of sulfurous compounds, all the time. Mars is hell with a colder climate. Which leads right back to the question of why does anybody want to go there? Explore, okay, yes. But live? Why? How many people on Earth choose to live their entire lives underground? There won’t be any pretty vistas in the habitation dome two hundred meters below the surface. How many people enjoy the smell of a sewage treatment plant? It’s easy to say bold things about establishing a human outpost on another world, but have any of those giving the inspirational speeches actually lived a couple of months in a cold coal mine next to a sewer pipe to get a sense of what it would actually be like?

Maybe, if the goal is to save the human species in case the Earth gets wiped out, the hardships of Mars would be acceptable inconveniences. But morally there is something deeply troubling about a plan that prioritizes saving a small number of humans while allowing, or tolerating, the deaths of billions of people back home. Shouldn’t the goal be to save the Earth rather than to abandon it?

Both National Geographic’s Mars and new movie The Space Between Us have to answer the same basic question: why settle the Red Planet? Inevitably, in their own individual ways, they both struggle to escape the pull of the blue planet we currently inhabit.


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