‘Mars’: How Elon Musk and ‘The Martian’ Fit Into the National Geographic Mini-Series (and Our Future)

     November 13, 2016


Mars is a television first. It’s a half-scripted original sci-fi mini-series about a team of scientists who are attempting to build the first small colony on Mars in 2033 and it’s a half-documentary with behind the scenes footage of researchers working at Elon Musk‘s Space X featuring illuminating interviews with Musk, Neil Degrasse Tyson and experts from NASA, JPL and many more. The global event series was produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer for National Geographic and begins airing on Monday.

The segues between 2016 and 2033, fact and fiction, are done rather seamlessly—although it helps that the music comes from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, whose tones glide us from current optimism and grief to a crew that’s struggling to survive with maximum ease. The fictional crew is made up of Ben Cotton, Jihae, Anamaria Marinca, Clementine Poidatz, Sammi Rotibi and Cosima Shaw and their fictional Musk-type tech wiz—who’s moved on to funding international space exploration projects—is played by Olivier Martinez (Unfaithful). The entire series is directed by Everardo Gout (Banshee) and the first episode simultaneously follows their landing and a launch of a new Space X rocket with up close and personal reactions of both scientific elation and grief.

Image via National Geographic

Image via National Geographic

We had the chance to travel to Budapest, Hungary to visit the fictional set—which featured a series of pods that were based on current models for colonization plans—and speak with the author and a co-producer of the series, Stephen Petranek. Petranek is a technological forecaster who was a long time editor of Discover magazine and The Washington Post‘s magazine. Petranek recently wrote the book How We’ll Live on Mars, a well-researched extension of a famous talk that Petranek did on settling Mars and on which the series uses as a structural template (his TED talks were some of the earliest to receive more than a million views).

Petranek filled our brains with reasons why space exploration will come from the private sector, updated us on many aspects about Musk’s Space X project (as a journalist, Petranek has profiled the Tesla Motors and Space X CEO for years) and how films like Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian have all contributed to making space the place again for big time dreamers. Including how the popularity of The Martian changed many statements of intent by NASA.

Question: First of all, would you call yourself a dreamer or a realist?

STEPHEN PETRANEK: Realist. Absolutely a realist. There is no technology that has to be invented to go to Mars and live on Mars and that’s been true for fifty years. In the early 1970s Werhner Von Braun went to President Richard Nixon and to Congress and to NASA and said the Apollo program is coming to an end, what are we going to do with NASA and he said I want to go to Mars. And he laid out a very intelligent plan to land people on Mars in 1985. So we’ve had everything we need to do this for a long, long time so it’s not unrealistic to say we can go to Mars and we can build a civilization there. That’s completely realistic. Whether or not it’s a good idea or it’s something we want to do or it’s something we want to spend money on is different, that becomes a political choice. But from a technical standpoint this is all very, very real. Not easy but real and also it’s fraught with a certain amount of danger. I mean people are gonna die when we do this. We lost what 16 people on the space shuttle or 15 people on two different space shuttles. That’s gonna look like kindergarten compared to going to Mars. There are gonna be big problems.

Image via National Geographic

Image via National Geographic

I could easily imagine if Elon Musk’s scenario comes true and he’s sending a Mars colonizer rocket with 80 to 100 people aboard every rocket. Some of those rockets are not gonna get there. There are gonna be problems. I’m old enough to remember when flying in an airplane was actually kind of a scary proposition and now it’s not. And eventually going to Mars will be the same way but right now it’s a pretty scary proposition. So realistically we can do all of this. There’s no fantasy involved in this. Whether or not we wanna do it and should do it, that’s a different story.

How much of Elon Musk and Space X will we get to see in Mars?

PETRANEK: Well I can tell you there were very journalistic situations that we were allowed to participate in. For example last December you may remember how easily we forget, we now take it for granted that Elon Musk can send a rocket booster into space and bring it back down again and even land it on a raft. But last December was the first time they were successful in actually recovering a booster, all the others had crashed when they came down and so we had cameras at Cape Canaveral last December shooting the entire situation of that launch of that rocket and bringing it down and landing it successfully for the first time and recovering it. And we have footage of Elon at the last second leaving his spot at the control center and going out the door which is marked with one of those things that says an alarm will go off if you go through this exit, running out that door and actually watching it come down himself.

So what we have that is very unusual is access and none of this is staged. They don’t say “oh, the National Geographic guys are coming today so everyone wear nice clothes and we’re gonna build part of a rocket.” Space X is just like “you guys can come next week but leave us alone as much as possible.” So it’s all very realistic, all very journalistic. We just have amazing accessibility because none of this would have happened, this entire project would not have happened if he had not agreed to give us access. Because all of us felt that without entry to Space X you just didn’t have enough of the building blocks to do this with great credibility.

Image via National Geographic

Image via National Geographic

For this book you are saying that it’s a reality, we can go to Mars. This planet is full of religious people. Do you think that it in this future, religion has a future?

PETRANEK: Hmm. I’m not a religious person, organized religion person. But I do believe in a certain level of spirituality. I don’t think going to Mars is any threat to religion. I think if we find life on Mars that may be a threat to religious thinking, that may require some…

Rewriting, right?

PETRANEK: Some rewriting, yes. I think it’s very unlikely that life only exists on Earth. And I think it’s only a matter of time before religion needs to confront that dichotomy so I don’t think there are many religious considerations involved in whether or not we explore, whether or not we are exploring Antarctica or we’re exploring Mars. I mean we found life at the bottom of Lake Vostok which is a frozen lake in Antarctica. It’s almost impossible to imagine that life existed at the bottom of this lake but it does. So it’s unreasonable to think that life doesn’t exist throughout the universe, we just haven’t discovered it. You have to remember that only twenty years ago in 1995 there were only 9 planets in the universe, the ones in our solar system. We had not discovered a single other planet and then all of a sudden in 1995 we found two other planets and now there are 8,000 that we know of and we think there are billions. So we seem to be able to accommodate and adapt to these earth-shaking, so to speak, discoveries. So I don’t think it will necessarily be a problem for religion.

I wanna go back to Space X because I know Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy is four years behind when he said that it would be ready to go.

PETRANEK: He’s very optimistic.

Yeah, so how do you take something like the Falcon Heavy, which is behind, and carry that to the Mars Colonization rocket, which he’s just announced?

PETRANEK: First of all it’s the early stages of rocket development that are the most expensive and the most complex so they are still flying a version of the Falcon rocket that they invented 10 years ago but in almost no way is it the same rocket. It’s been constantly developed. It can lift at least twice as much as it could ten years ago and the Falcon Heavy is still a Falcon Nine with two Falcon Nine boosters strapped on to it. So the Falcon Nine s 9 engines, 9 Merlin engines and then they take two boosters that have 9 engines and strap it on. Now you have a rocket with 27 engines that can lift 4 times what the Falcon Nine can lift and that isn’t big enough to go to Mars with. So the interesting part of your question is whether or not they have to reinvent the wheel to do the Mars Colonizer rocket or whether they simply have to upgrade existing technology and I think what you’ll find is that it’s an upgrade of existing technology. It’s actually pretty easy to just make things bigger when you’re developing rocketry. It’s not that complicated. Once you have the mechanics and the engineering of the systems involved and that those work, making those larger, scaling them up is not that much of a problem.

Image via National Geographic

Image via National Geographic

The whole Mars colonizer idea is both revolutionary and not revolutionary. It’s not revolutionary because the concept from this came from Werhner von Braun in 1948 and when he wrote the book Das Marsprojeckt and he said we’ll have these small rockets that go up to Earth orbit and they will bring supplies up to Earth orbit and we will build our Mars rocket in Earth orbit and then go from there. Musk is building a two stage rocket, the Mars colonizer which the booster will be recoverable and will land again on Earth will bring it almost to Earth orbit and then a second stage that is also part of the spacecraft, so that’s one unit instead of a three or four stage rocket that we have now. It’s just gonna be two stages. The second stage will get to Earth orbit and this will be a huge rocket carrying 80 to 100 people but it will be out of fuel so he will also fire rockets into orbit that will carry fuel and they will transfer that fuel to the Mars colonizer rocket and they will take on from there. Those rockets will never return to Earth. They’ll go to Mars, they’ll get refueled on Mars and then come back to Earth, they’ll go to Mars, come back to Earth, but they’ll never land on Earth again because it just takes too much fuel just to get up high enough to get going so I don’t think the technology of the Mars colonizer rocket is more complex, I think it’s just bigger.