Imagine life on the Red Planet

Produced by Oscar- winning director Ron Howard, the six-part series Mars envisions a future for human beings on the planet

National Geographic miniseries Mars combines a space adventure with hard science.
National Geographic miniseries Mars combines a space adventure with hard science.PHOTO: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL

Humans could land on Mars as early as nine years from now and eventually transform the planet's surface and atmosphere to become more Earth-like. And those conceived and born on the Red Planet could evolve into a second species of human beings whose bodies are better suited to its low gravity.

This is the vision of the future painted by a National Geographic series, Mars, which started yesterday and combines a space adventure with hard science. It is showing on Sundays on Singtel TV Channel 201 and StarHub TV Channel 411.

Produced by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, the six-parter combines documentary-style interviews with Mars pioneers such as SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and a scripted drama imagining a manned mission to the planet in 2033, starring an international cast that includes French actor Olivier Martinez and Korean-American singer Jihae.

Earlier this year in Los Angeles, The Straits Times and other press spoke to some of the writers and scientists involved: Stephen Petranek, whose 2015 book, How We'll Live On Mars, was the source material for the screenplay; Dr Robert Braun, a space engineer who designs Mars landing systems and vetted the science on the series; and Andy Weir, author of the 2011 novel, The Martian, and one of those interviewed for the episodes.

For our characters to be going to space on a one-way ticket and leaving everything behind is an intense sacrifice and you have to psychologically prepare to deal with that.

KOREAN-AMERICAN SINGER JIHAE, on how the cast of Mars had to imagine embarking on a trip to the Red Planet and possibly never returning to Earth

All three believe colonising Mars is a vital human endeavour.

Petranek, 63, believes humans will be living on the Red Planet by 2027 and says a Mars colony is "an insurance policy for humanity" against threats such as climate change or asteroid strike and that humans will become a space-faring species to survive.

He thinks the first manned mission could happen in "maybe nine or 11 years" and is confident that private aerospace company SpaceX will beat the American space agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), to the punch (although he was speaking before SpaceX suffered a major setback in September when its Falcon 9 rocket blew up on its launchpad).

"Musk says 2025 for the first SpaceX rocket. It'll certainly be before 2030. Nasa might be able to orbit Mars by 2030, but they won't be landing anybody there till late in the 2030s."

But while a manned Mars mission is within reach, it is risky.

Dr Braun, who is developing technologies for future robotic and human exploration missions to Mars, lists all the ways it could go wrong.

"It's a risky proposition just to land on Mars," he says. "Everything you design on the ship that's got to land on the Mars surface has to be highly reliable and it has to work right the first time because that ship is hurtling towards the surface at supersonic speeds."

If the crew members land safely, they then "have to survive in this very harsh world that's nothing like what we're used to on Earth - the gravity, atmosphere, pressure and radiation is different, there's no abundant liquid water flowing on the surface of Mars today and there aren't cranes to help you build your habitat", he explains, adding that early settlers will also have to figure out how to grow some of their food and live off the land.

In addition, because Mars' thin atmosphere affords less protection from cosmic radiation compared with Earth, the first colonists will have to "get underground quickly or build 20- to 30-foot walls out of the soil there to protect themselves from radiation".

However, some experts believe that to sustain millions of people, living underground is not the best solution. Instead, the planet will likely need to be "terraformed" - or have its surface and climate transformed, for example, by warming up dry ice at the poles to thicken the atmosphere.

Petranek says this could take anywhere from 30 to 300 years, "depending on how much money you want to spend".

The bill would likely run into the trillions, but the funds could easily be raised "if the world comes together and says, 'We have a lot of threats on Earth and it could mean the end of humanity' if we do not make Mars liveable".

Eventually, though, new generations of Mars-born settlers will be born and whose bodies are better adapted to the environment anyway.

Weir, 44, says: "If you gestate and then grow on Mars, which has 38 per cent of the Earth's gravity, you'd be weaker physically than Earth humans, your cardiovascular system wouldn't be nearly as strong because it wouldn't need to work as hard, so a human from Earth would almost be like a superhuman as far as you're concerned.

"But you would be more graceful and dexterous because this would be your native environment, although you wouldn't be able to go to Earth."

What people would end up with, says Petranek, is "two kinds of human beings, basically - a Martian species and an Earth-bound species of human".

But those early missions to Mars require a special breed of humans, too, in a way: astronauts willing and able to undertake the challenge, especially given that "the SpaceX missions, which are likely to be more successful and get there earlier, do not involve return trips", Petranek says.

The psychological toll of such a trip is explored in detail by the drama portion of the show, which sees actors Jihae, Ben Cotton, Sammi Rotibi, Clementine Poidatz and Anamaria Marinca playing the first Mars crew.

The actors were put through an informal "space camp" by Nasa astronaut Mae Jemison, who in 1992 became the first African-American woman in space. She helped them imagine what it would feel like to embark on such a trip and leave Earth and their loved ones behind, potentially for good.

Jihae - who plays both the pilot of the mission and her twin sister, the communications director on the ground - says: "Dr Jemison told us when she went up, she prepared herself, she wrote a will and she was, like, 'There's a good chance that I could die on this mission and I have to be okay with that.'

"And she wasn't going on a one-way ticket and wasn't going for very long either, maybe a couple of weeks. So for our characters to be going to space on a one-way ticket and leaving everything behind is an intense sacrifice and you have to psychologically prepare to deal with that," says the 27-year-old.

Petranek says: "The physical factors are easy to figure out; the psychological factors are mostly undetermined. People are human and working out relationships with one another, especially under pressure, can be very difficult. Plus, there are all kinds of unknown physiological and, in turn, psychological effects of lower gravity.

"And the Mars habitat that's in the series is very dark and depressing - it's in a lava tube from an old, non-active volcano and that's a very realistic site that we would pick because it's naturally shielded from radiation. It's dark and all the lighting is synthetic and you can grow only a few supplemental plants for your diet - you're mostly eating dried food sent from Earth and you've got to find a water supply. It doesn't look like Paris in the spring, I'll tell you."

Those who sign up for such a mission, however, know "you're not going there for a vacation" and would wake up every morning excited just to be there, he says.

"Every morning, you'd wake up and see a red sky and red earth and you'd think, 'What's over the next hill that could be discovered?' That's going to be constantly exciting to people."

Dr Braun agrees. "Very few astronauts who want to break frontiers ask about the quality of life. What drives these people is to be pioneers. They're doing it for humanity."

•Mars airs in Singapore on National Geographic Channel (Singtel TV Channel 201 and StarHub TV Channel 411) on Sundays at 10pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline 'Imagine life on the Red Planet'. Subscribe