Of all the planets in our solar system, none has captured our collective imagination like Mars — a mysterious, indelible part of the zeitgeist. The quest to send humans to Mars has engaged the top minds in science in a modern-day space race, and it has infiltrated pop culture through blockbusters like Andy Weir’s The Martian and through out-of-this-world tweets from astronaut Scott Kelly. Now, National Geographic Channel (NGC), Academy Award- and Emmy-winning producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Michael Rosenberg of Imagine Entertainment; and Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning producer Justin Wilkes and Dave O’Connor of RadicalMedia have joined forces to launch viewers farther into outer space than ever before with the global event series MARS.
Premiering on the National Geographic Channel in 171 countries and 45 languages this November, MARS — which is set both in the future and in the present day — will redefine television storytelling by combining feature-film-quality scripted drama and visual effects with best-in-class documentary sequences to drive forward a cohesive, edge-of-your seat story of mankind’s thrilling quest to colonise Mars. This epic six-part global event series tells the inspiring story from the vantage point of a fictitious crewed mission in 2033.
“Grazer and I, along with our friends at Radical, had this ambitious idea, which was to create a documentary about the quest to go to Mars but also bring it to life in a really dramatic and cinematic way,’ said executive producer Ron Howard. “The offer to the audience will be information meets vivid and experiential filmmaking. Nat Geo’s ambition was high, and we are really honoured and thrilled to try and meet that challenge.’
The starting point for this unique storytelling method is the year 2033, and we have embarked on the first crewed mission to MARS. As dramatic scripted elements and feature film-calibre visual effects bring this future world to life, the modern-day quest to reach the red planet is told through documentary verite and interviews with the present-day scientists and innovators who are leading the research and development of space technology that will make the 2033 mission possible. Executive producers Howard and Grazer hand-selected visionary Mexican filmmaker Everardo Gout (Days of Grace) to direct the scripted portions of the series, filmed earlier this year in Budapest and Morocco.
The First Crewed Mission to MARS
MARS envisions the future of space travel funded through a corporate-public partnership of two fictional organisations: the Mars Mission Corporation (MMC), a consortium of aerospace corporations formed in 2022 and headquartered in London that builds and manages the technological hardware for the Mars programme, and the International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), which was created by a coalition of space-faring nations to carry out a mission to Mars.
The scripted portion focuses on Earth’s first crewed mission to MARS aboard the spacecraft Daedalus. Its maiden voyage in 2033 is crewed by a carefully selected international crew of six uniquely qualified astronauts, including American mission commander Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton), Korean American mission pilot Hana Seung (Jihae), Spanish hydrologist and geochemist Javier Delgado (Alberto Ammann), French mission physician and biochemist Amelie Durand (Clementine Poidatz), Nigerian mechanical engineer and roboticist Robert Foucault (Sammi Rotibi) and Russian exobiologist and geologist Marta Kamen (Anamaria Marinca). Back on Earth, the MMC control team based in London includes Hana Seung’s twin sister, capsule communicator (CAPCOM) Joon Seung (also played by Jihae) and French CEO of the MMC Ed Grann (Olivier Martinez).
Once Daedalus successfully lands on Mars and sets up a preliminary base of operations, British nuclear physicist Leslie Richardson (Cosima Shaw) will lead a Phase 2 settlement team along with her husband, world-renowned experimental botanist Dr. Paul Richardson (John Light).
The production team took painstaking efforts to base the scripted narrative in real-world science. The series writing team worked with an extensive group of experts, both in the public and private sectors, to understand how the science could serve the story. Dr. Robert Braun, an aerospace engineer and professor of space technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, provided expert consultation on all scientific aspects of the fictional storyline. Dr. Mae Jemison, a former NASA astronaut who holds the distinction of being the first woman of colour in space, acted as a space advisor on the series, working closely with the cast to help them hone their portrayals.
In terms of the visual look of the series, production designer Sophie Becher turned to NASA and SpaceX to help inform her designs of the Daedalus spaceship and Olympus Town, the first human colony on Mars as portrayed by the series. Costume designer Daniela Ciancio extensively researched the types of fabrics being created today to make spacesuits lighter, stronger, more flexible and radiation resistant to protect the astronauts of tomorrow. And Framestore, the Academy Award-winning visual effects team behind Gravity, will layer in the final external visuals to complete the look of the series.
Visionaries paving the path
MARS also showcases an unprecedented collection of interviews with the top scientific minds currently working to overcome the many obstacles that stand in the way of an eventual maiden launch. National Geographic received exclusive access to film Elon Musk (founder of Tesla and SpaceX) and his team at SpaceX mission control as they successfully landed their Falcon 9 reusable rocket on a drone ship off the East Coast of the U.S. this past April.
“The future of humanity is fundamentally going to bifurcate along one of two directions: either we’re going to become a multi-planet species and a spacefaring civilisation, or we’re going to be stuck on one planet until some eventual extinction event. In order for me to be excited and inspired about the future, it’s got to be the first option,’ says Musk in the series.
MARS brings together all of the world’s leading minds in a way never before accomplished — think of the world’s largest TED talk with the most fascinating people on Earth. Those interviewed for the series include:
• Charles Bolden, NASA administrator; former NASA astronaut
• Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman, X-Prize; co-founder and co-chairman, Planetary Resources
• Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director, Hayden Planetarium at The Rose Center for Earth and Space
• David Dinges, professor, department of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania
• Casey Dreier, director, space policy, Planetary Society
• Ann Druyan, executive producer and writer, Cosmos
• Charles Elachi, retired director, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL); professor emeritus, Caltech
• Jim Green, NASA planetary science division director
• John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate; former NASA astronaut
• Jennifer Heldmann, NASA planetary scientist
• Jedidah Isler, award-winning astrophysicist; emerging Explorer, National Geographic
• Thomas Kalil, deputy director, policy, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; senior advisor, science, technology and innovation, National Economic Council
• Roger Launius, associate director, collections and curatorial affairs, Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum
• John Logsdon, professor emeritus, political science and international affairs, George Washington University
• James Lovell, former NASA astronaut; commander, Apollo 13 mission
• Elon Musk, CEO and chief technology officer, SpaceX; CEO, Tesla Motors; chairman, SolarCity
• Stephen Petranek, author, How We’ll Live on Mars
• Mary Roach, author, Packing for Mars
• Jennifer Trosper, Mars 2020 mission manager, JPL
• Andy Weir, author, The Martian
• Robert Zubrin, president, The Mars Society; president, Pioneer Astronautics
The quest not only to reach Mars but also to colonise it one day has stirred vigorous debate within the space community. The question is not only “could we?’ but also “should we?’ Neil DeGrasse Tyson is not convinced that we have to send humans to Mars; he bets it would take less effort and less money to figure out how to survive threats to Earth than to colonise another planet in order to maintain the species: “I think we should visit planets, as you’d visit any place you’ve never been before… But we evolved on Earth to live on Earth.’
The consensus seems to be forming that humans will eventually make the trip to Mars, but the time table for doing so also remains a point of debate. Robert Zubrin, president of The Mars Society and of Pioneer Astronautics, makes a bold assertion: “If the next president were to get up in the spring of 2017 and announce his or her commitment to send humans to Mars, we could be there by the end of that administration’s second term.’
A Global Event
National Geographic will extend the MARS storytelling in an unprecedented cross-platform effort, including a six-part digital companion prequel series. Before MARS, which will launch prior to the premiere, is an extensive digital virtual-reality experience at www.MakeMarsHome.com.
MARS is produced by Imagine Entertainment and RadicalMedia for NGC. For Imagine Entertainment, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Michael Rosenberg are executive producers. For RadicalMedia, Justin Wilkes, Dave O’Connor, Jonathan Silberberg and Jon Kamen are executive producers. For NGC, Robert Palumbo is executive producer; Matt Renner is vice president, production; and Tim Pastore is president, original programming and production.