Why Bother? NatGeo Series Makes Case For Mars Mission

The fascination with space flight and exploration has always eluded me.

My reservations come down to two factors that seem disproportionate -- the cost of these adventures in relation to their results. All that money -- much of it taxpayer-funded, at least when NASA is involved and not some private corporation such as SpaceX. And for what? So a small group of people can walk around up there and collect a few rocks? Is that really worth a trillion dollars (or whatever these things cost)?

I guess you might call me a let’s-fix-Earth-first kind of person when it comes to these kinds of pie-in-the-sky (literally) investments. A new six-part series on National Geographic (the word “Channel” was recently removed from this channel’s name) aims to persuade people like me that a Mars mission is not only the right thing to do, but that the colonization of space, beginning with Mars, serves no less a necessity than ensuring the survival of the human race. That certainly sounds important.



But first things first. This “Mars” series -- premiering Monday night (November 14) on NatGeo -- is a costly production in its own right. It is not your average, run-of-the-mill cable documentary. It is a high-gloss production combining fictional portions -- depicting a Mars mission in the year 2033 -- with contemporary segments in which the goal of landing humans on Mars is discussed by various experts.

The executive producers of this series are Ron Howard and his long-time producing partner, Brian Grazer. Howard did not direct this show, however. That job went to a director named Everardo Gout. 

The series presents its fictional Mars story and present-day documentary material more or less simultaneously, with the portions intercut. The result is a kind of para-documentary in which the present-day talking heads outline the challenges of a Mars mission and describe what it would be like, and then the 2033 storyline takes over to actually illustrate what they are saying.

It’s a clever -- and in some ways innovative -- way to tell this story. But the hangup is that the present-day documentary portions have a way of interrupting the fictional Mars story at just the points where you are finally becoming interested in the fate of this Mars mission.

The theme of the series is that if the human race doesn’t do whatever it takes to colonize other celestial bodies (the moon is either not mentioned in this context, or it’s given short shrift as a colonization destination), then our status as a “one-planet species” (as humans are described in the series) is likely doomed. Or to put it another way, unless we have members of our species of both sexes ensconced on another planet and presumably procreating there, the history of the human race will end either suddenly (by a meteor making a direct hit on Earth, for example) or gradually (by ruining the water and air, and depleting all available energy and mineral resources).

That’s a depressing thing to consider, although like so many “big” concepts, it’s difficult to get one’s head around it. Just to focus on one of these calamities for a moment: Like many people, I will likely deny the inevitability of a catastrophic meteor strike right up until the moment it happens -- by which time it will be too late.

And anyway, what are the odds? And are they worth spending a trillion dollars to prepare for? 

Oddly, with so much seemingly at stake, some of the fictional Mars material is surprisingly lifeless. For example, shortly after landing, as the crew drives across Mars in a vehicle that looks like a minivan or small bus in Episode 2, they just ride along as if there’s nothing unusual about riding in a minivan across the expanse of the Mars surface. None of them even seem the least bit interested in looking out the window. There’s no palpable sense of awe or excitement.

The people who are really excited about a Mars mission are the talking heads of this series’ documentary segments, including astronaut Jim Lovell and Elon Musk, whose SpaceX company is trying to put a Mars mission together.

I wish them luck, but I plan to stay here on Earth, and hope for the best.

“Mars” premieres Monday (Nov. 14) at 9 p.m. Eastern on National Geographic.

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