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MARS: National Geo mini-series journeys into uncharted TV territory

National Geographic's new 'MARS' miniseries blends documentary and fiction to show the struggles and possibilities of humans living on Mars. 

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    International Space Station crew member Scott Kelly flashes a double thumbs-up after landing in Kazakhstan, in March.
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A new life on Mars may be closer than you think.

That’s the message of “MARS,” National Geographic’s new 6-part miniseries. Set to premiere in the US on Monday, it’s a scientifically accurate portrayal of the journey to, and life on, the Red Planet in 2033. It draws on the technological advances of NASA, SpaceX, and researchers worldwide, weaving them into a narrative that is part drama, part documentary. 

Just like the planet it depicts, the new format is largely uncharted terrain. The miniseries is the standard-bearer of National Geographic’s reincarnation, which will focus on so-called “premium nonfiction” programs like this one. For NASA and SpaceX, it may be an opportunity to bring to life the journey to Mars alive – and to rally the public behind their visions.

"I think one of the nice things about this series is that it mixes in some of the present day events, and so it's going to show not only what this future mission might look like and the drama of that future mission, but it's going to show all the stuff that's happening in 2016 to get us ready to go do those things," said Bobby Braun, a professor of space technology at Georgia Tech who designed the Daedalus spacecraft in the miniseries, to Space.com.

NASA and its partners have sent orbiters, landers, and rovers to Mars since the 1970s. In October, President Obama announced that humans would journey to Mars by the end of the next decade, and indicated that they might even establish settlements there.

"We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time," he said in an interview with CNN.

That goal is shared by Elon Musk, the billionaire founder and chief executive officer of Tesla and SpaceX. In June, Mr. Musk announced that he wanted to send humans to Mars by 2024. Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September, Musk elaborated on that statement, announcing plans to establish a self-sustaining city of at least 1 million people on the planet.

Miniseries producer Justin Wilkes had originally approached Musk about making a documentary based around SpaceX. At Musk’s urging, it took on a new life as a platform for sharing his conviction that humans need to colonize Mars.

The audience will have a front-row seat to the struggles of the "first humans on Mars" as they leave their families and carve out a new life. Mr. Wilkes said he hopes the series will inspire viewers to believe in the Mars mission. 

"Read any press about what’s happening in the world. It’s ... depressing," he told the Daily Beast.

"If the world can come together for something as significant as putting people on Mars, then what else are we capable of doing? I think we need that hope," he said, adding that the last time America had that hope was during the Apollo missions.

For ordinary Americans, the miniseries may help dreams of Mars seem less far out of reach.

In a move away from science fiction, existing technologies that will help humans arrive and survive on Mars are integrated into the drama. The Daedalus spacecraft is a combination of plans by NASA, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, and academic researchers, said Professor Braun. The International Space Station already has a water-recycling system that could be used on Mars. And researchers are developing ways to grow plants on the Red Planet, just as the characters in the miniseries do.

The documentary sections feature experts who address the psychological implications of making such a journey and the policy questions that arise from sending humans to colonize a place that no one owns.

If people believe in the Mars program, will they be more willing to pay for it? Studies have repeatedly shown that, while Americans support space exploration, they are less willing to finance it. 

Half of Americans surveyed in a 2015 Monmouth University poll opposed the government spending "billions of dollars" to send astronauts to Mars, the moon, and asteroids.

In 2014, 25 percent of surveyed Americans said they thought the US already spends too much on space exploration, the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey found. Musk may hope the miniseries can create grassroots support for financing a city on Mars. 

It will take "a huge public-private partnership to finance it," he told the International Astronautical Congress.

"MARS" premieres on the National Geographic channel at 8 p.m. EST on Monday, Nov. 14, for US viewers. Its international premiere takes place on Sunday. The first episode of the miniseries is now available online.

 
 
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