There was a time not too long ago when it seemed children wanted to be one of three things when they grew up: a police officer, a fireman, or an astronaut. I fell into the latter category. Watching some of the early flights of the Space Shuttle on television made me want to consider what it would be like to travel beyond the grasp of Earth’s gravity, exploring strange planets, discovering new forms of life, and avoiding the dreaded reading of Vogon poetry. Not even watching the explosion of the Challenger in 1986 could deter me from that goal. Unfortunately, it took a Tilt-a Whirl ride in college to reveal that I didn’t have the right stuff. Nevertheless, space has continued to be a fascination of mine to this day.
It also seems Hollywood has exhibited a case of space fever over the last decade, releasing new episodes of Star Trek and Star Wars while producing other quality films such as WALL*E, The Martian, and an upcoming flick called Passengers. It’s so contagious that Ron Howard, director of the critically acclaimed movie Apollo 13 in 1995, has jumped back into the genre as executive producer of a new series for National Geographic Channel called Mars (starts Monday November 14 at 9 PM [8 CT]). It’s a challenging reminder of why space exploration is so risky and yet holds out so much hope for the inhabitants of this planet.
Mars is going to inevitably draw comparisons to Matt Damon’s recent film, but it need not immediately do so. In director Everardo Gout’s first episode entitled “Novo Mundo” (“New World” in Portugese), the IMSF (International Mars Science Foundation) has finally found six astronauts to make the trip. It’s an international crew with members from Nigeria, Spain, Russia, and the US. Each has their specific specialties that will be necessary as they set up the pre-positioned base camp. And with that, the trip on the spaceship Daedalus begins. All seems to be going fine until they attempt to enter Mars’ limited atmosphere, when one of the thrusters cannot fire, threatening to end the mission before even setting foot on the planet. Split-second decisions have to be made, and Mission Commander Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton) makes the biggest one—but physically pays for it. The team lands successfully, but a significant distance away from the camp, increasing the difficulty of the mission.
Interspersed within the episode is a documentary featuring major players in space exploration, technology, and former astronauts (even the author of “The Martian,” Andy Weir, makes an appearance). For this episode, the focus involves how to get people and cargo to space in an economical fashion using reusable spacecraft. Elon Musk (of Tesla fame) has another company called SpaceX whose goal is to “make life interplanetary.” They’ve been working on reusable rockets—you may have seen recent stories about their attempts to land one on a floating barge (they’ve been successful a few times, but have failed as well). If we can’t get this part right, we won’t be able to make it happen.
For the most part, the first episode works. The situations seem plausible and I appreciated the way Sawyer solves the thruster problem—not creating a solution, but using something that already works. The acting is a bit wooden in places and the IMSF headquarters seems awfully antiseptic in nature, but the tension of the situation reveals itself quite well. Life on the Red Planet isn’t going to be easy, and I have a feeling we’re about to find out why. I also think the interspersed documentary segments are interesting and add some nice background for something that is a bit difficult to quantify for the average viewer. Your mileage may vary, however.
It’s pretty clear that everyday survival is going to be a challenge for the astronauts—even without additional hurdles being added to the equation. But the six humans knew what they were getting into beforehand. They brought mementos from Earth—photos, trinkets, toys—to remind them what they were giving up. This sounds a lot like a conversation a young man had with Jesus one day–he said he would follow him but asked to bury his parents first (This was a euphemism of wanting to live out life before committing to something). Jesus knew this and said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62 NIV). This sounds awfully familiar as Mission Commander Sawyer asks the Daedalus crew before launch if there’s anything in the world that is more important than their mission. If there is, he asks them to leave. He’s sharing the assumed risk of never seeing family or friends again and wants them to understand the full gravity of their calling. The same goes for following after Christ—there’s a high cost involved (friends, family, life goals), but Christ says it’ll be worth it. To take the journey means not looking back.
Mars is one of those shows that needs to be given a chance simply due to the subject matter involved. And after the first episode, you might be hooked. I’m ready to see what happens next—and how in the world we’re going to make it a reality. The future of our species may be at stake.