The Unconventional Ideas Behind National Geographic’s MARS

By Terry Dunn

Terry chats with author Stephen Petranek about the prospect of colonizing Mars.

Tonight is the premiere of MARS, a new weekly television series on the National Geographic Channel about our neighboring planet. In a departure from the documentaries that we've come to expect from Nat Geo, this series is part documentary and part dramatization. The scripted element follows an international crew during its Mars mission in the year 2033.

The show's producers claim that the storyline is based on our best guess at what a Martian mission would look like. Many elements seen on the screen, whether it's the vehicles, spacesuits, habitats, mission objectives, and even our motivation for travelling to another planet, are reflections of the ideas of the current-day Mars exploration advocates who were consulted for the show. Sound bites from these advisors make up the documentary elements of MARS. Many of the faces will be familiar to you, such as Elon Musk, Scott, Kelly, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jim Lovell, and Andy Weir.

I've watched the first two episodes of MARS and found them enjoyable. I'm easy to please when it comes to documentaries, so that aspect was a slam dunk. At the same time, I'm a harsh critic of space-based dramas. Although I thought the pace of the storyline was a bit slow, it avoided my usual gripe about these types of stories: too much suspension of disbelief. I don't recall many instances where I pointed at the screen yelling "No way! That's not how it works!" The producers did their homework.

While the dramatic and real-life aspects of the show complement each other, I think that either could stand on its own as well. I won't offer any spoilers here, as I'm sure many of you already have plans to watch tonight's episode. However, I thought it would be interesting to delve into the unique thinking within the book (and TED talk) that inspired the show, Stephen Petranek's How We'll Live on Mars.

About the Book

MARS was inspired by Stephen Petranek's book, "How We'll Live On Mars". Petranek asserts that a large Martian colony is essential for long-term human survival.

While many people who champion the idea of footprints on Mars speak of exploration as a fundamental element of human nature, Petranek takes a more unique and pressing tack. He asserts that humans should do more than just explore Mars. They must strive to create a sizeable and self-sufficient population that calls the red planet home. His reasoning is that Martian citizens would carry on the species if and when a catastrophic, life-ending circumstance befalls those of us stuck on the third rock. If you're having trouble conceiving more than a few flavors of Armageddon, Petranek spells out 10 possibilities in another of his TED talks.

I'm not fully on board with the Martian lifeboat plan just yet. But I do find aspects of Petranek's concept to be quite interesting. I had a chance to speak with him to dig a little deeper.

Tested: In your TED talk about colonizing Mars, you reference a lot of technologies that are currently available. Are there any emerging technologies that could change your vision for Mars significantly?

Stephen Petranek: Probably so. Elon Musk has mentioned antimatter rocket engines as a way to become an interstellar species instead of just a multi-planet species. There certainly are more radical, cutting-edge technologies that could get us to Mars sooner than 240 days, which is our current travel time with chemical rockets. There's electric ion propulsion and so forth. But a lot of that stuff is more theoretical than practical. The truth of the matter is that we've had the technology to do this for 30 years.

Wernher von Braun really had designed the Saturn V rocket to get us to Mars, not to the moon. It was such overkill to have the world's largest, most magnificent machine just to get us to the moon, which is not that far away. That rocket was so fast. Even though we took three days to get to the moon, we could have gotten there in one day with that rocket. The problem is that you would be going so fast that you would just shoot right by the moon. You wouldn't be able to get into orbit.

When the Apollo program was coming to an end in the late '60s and early '70s, von Braun was trying to convince President Nixon to drop the plan for the space shuttle and go to Mars. He said, "I can land people on Mars by 1982." I think that was probably an optimistic estimate, but I'm pretty sure we could have had humans on Mars by 1990.

That kind of NASA scenario is very realistic and very probable…especially if you have a push from the president. But Nixon instead chose to build the space shuttle. That was probably for national security interests in servicing spy satellites, which used film cameras then, rather than creating a next step into space.

If we had one fourth of the money that we spent on the space shuttle, we could establish a permanent colony on Mars right now. We had 135 flights of the space shuttle. Each one with an average cost of 1.4 billion dollars. So we spent around 180 billion dollars on the space shuttle. You need about 40 to 45 billion dollars to establish a colony on Mars. You could do it tomorrow for that. This is a matter of will rather than technology or anything else.

Do you think that willingness exists today?

I don't think NASA has the interest. When I was writing the book [How We'll Live on Mars] a couple years ago, Charlie Bolden, the head of NASA, pointed out a line on one of their websites that says "NASA has no plans for human missions to Mars." Then my book comes out and The Martian comes out, which I think is far more influential, and all of a sudden NASA has appointed a director of human spaceflight to Mars.

SpaceX is a company that has only one mission in mind. It has declared that it exists for only one reason, which is to stablish a permanent sustainable civilization on Mars. That's what the company is there for. And they are pushing everybody towards this.

The fact that we can and will reach Mars is also driving a tiny bit of a space race. The Chinese, who have a very independent space agency, are now saying that they will land a man on the moon by 2025. And they clearly intend to land somebody on Mars by 2040. I think that SpaceX, or some version of SpaceX, in cooperation with NASA, will actually land somebody on Mars well before 2030…somebody who will probably stay there and not come back.

The plan that you are proposing will take a very long time. How do you maintain momentum for such a project as you cycle through leaders and other changes in the political climate on Earth?

What's going on now has almost nothing to do with governments anymore. So it's not at the whim of changing leaders. You have private companies like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Arianespace, and even the Russian space program is essentially privatized. You have private companies going into space now. You no longer need a government to do this. If you have a self-sustaining economy on Mars, you can order your food from Earth and there will be plenty of people that will be happy to supply you.

"Terraforming" Mars so that humans can breathe in the atmosphere is a very difficult, long-range, technological problem. It is solvable, but it is very expensive and will take a long time…probably 1,000 years. But within 50 years, you can have a very sustainable economy there. You can then afford to ship in food. You will not be able to grow enough food on Mars to sustain the population for perhaps 300 years…at least until you can significantly terraform the planet by heating it up.

The basic resupply that will come from Earth will be food. Everything else you can make with the resources you have there. That food will be freeze-dried. There won't be a drop of water in it because it weighs too much. And it will be expensive. But I think the Martian economy will be able to pay for its own resupply.

It is an expensive proposition, but not ridiculous to erect a solar mirror in a static orbit around Mars and direct it at the south pole. This will begin to warm up frozen carbon dioxide there that is barely frozen. It's just a few degrees below freezing point. When that carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere on Mars, it will solve a lot of problems. It will warm the planet so that instead of having an average of about minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, you will have a planet that is about 20 degrees [F] average temperature. A band around the equator will actually be extremely livable.

There's a lot of water on the surface of Mars, but it's frozen. All of that water will melt when you heat up the planet. When it melts, you will then be able to have agriculture that will provide a self-sustaining food supply. That could actually be done in as little as 50 years, but it's very, very expensive. That's why it's more likely that it will take about 300 years for the people on Mars to be able to afford to build that type of infrastructure. The technology has been around for a long time. It's all about will and money.

Thanks for your time and good luck with the show.

Thank you.

Be sure to catch the first episode of MARS tonight on the National Geographic Channel. Feel free to post your comments about the show below.

Terry is a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.