For me, a child of the Sixties, the National Geographic Society (NGS, or “Society”) provided an amazing window into the wonderful world of discovery. Founded in 1888, the Society has produced an enormous catalogue of books, TV programs and movies. Nine months after its inception, the now iconic National Geographic monthly hit the stands. For well over one hundred years, in issue after issue, the publication with the familiar yellow square graphic has taken eager readers to far away places, exotic locales and alien worlds – making the unknown interesting and accessible through the Society’s magnificent photography and artwork. Occasionally, a fold out map detailing the feature story is tucked between its pages. The Society’s map of the Moon is one of the best available. While I knew National Geographic through years of enjoying its publications and programs, I remained unaware of the Society’s history of controversies. My knowledge about science and history (and its telling) is much broader today.
During its 128-year history, the Society has sponsored expeditions to remote corners of the globe, including Richard Peary’s 1909 attempt at the North Pole. When Dr. Frederick Cook announced in 1909 that he had attained the pole the previous year, the Society began a campaign of disparagement of Cook’s claim in favor of its own sponsored Peary expedition. Cook’s credibility had been previously questioned by the revelation of a member of his climbing team that his ascent of Mt. McKinley in 1906 had been fabricated. Thus, the NGS felt unassailable in their support of Peary’s claim that denied the priority of Cook’s claim. The campaign to give Peary credit for being first to reach the North Pole succeeded with an act of Congress that declared his claim valid (the vote was not unanimous). A re-examination of the published and unpublished evidence by arctic expert Wally Herbert in 1989 concluded that most likely, neither Peary nor Cook reached the pole. The NGS still supports Peary’s claim of priority.
The Society repeated this pattern of high profile, unquestioning support for their sponsored expeditions with Richard Byrd’s 1926 claim to have been the first person to fly over the North Pole. His claim was questioned, most notably by Bernt Balchen, the Norwegian polar aviator who later piloted Byrd’s aircraft on its first flight over the South Pole. Balchen was present at Byrd’s departure for the North Pole and had timed the length of the flight. On the basis of the known performance of the Fokker Tri-motor aircraft, Balchen concluded that Byrd must have turned around well short of the pole. Once again, the NGS stepped forward with a massive propaganda campaign to support Byrd’s claim.
This sort of no-holds-barred advocacy by the National Geographic Society’s isn’t some relic of bygone days either. For many years now, the NGS has promoted the idea of catastrophic climate change, most recently illustrated by the publication in their latest atlas of a blatantly incorrect map of the North Polar ice cap, a map where the Arctic basin appears to be mostly ice-free (the NGS understands well the maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words). In fact, satellite data show there has been little change in the extent of the polar cap since the publication of the Society’s 1971 map. Global, catastrophic, human-caused climate change is a politically correct, fashionable topic that has permeated all thinking and policy. The NGS has thrown its lot in with the sky-is-falling-and-we’re-all-doomed crowd. Everything has become politicized and science is no exception.
Which brings us to National Geographic’s current massive propaganda campaign, the Mars project. This combination documentary/drama is somewhat reminiscent of Walt Disney’s 1955 Tomorrowland television series about the conquest of space, which also introduced space visionary Wernher von Braun to the American public. Like its predecessor, Mars seeks to educate and enthuse the public in the belief that human missions to the Red Planet lie just around the corner. Toward that end, Mars is a pull-out-all-the-stops, Hollywood mega-production, featuring the talents of the renowned Director/Producer of the movie Apollo 13, Ron Howard.
This new series is officially set to premiere on November 17, 2016. However, Episode 1, Novo Mundo (The New World) is available for streaming on the web and the Society has created a massive, multi-page web site to promote the show. In addition to their dramatized version of a fictional first human mission to Mars, the series includes sound bites and interviews with numerous space experts proclaiming the imminence of the era of Mars flight. Needless to say, a variety of Mars advocates are heavily immersed and invested in the promotion of this show, including most notably NASA (whose own “Journey to Mars” remains as much in the realm of fiction as the NGS television series) and SpaceX’s CEO and “Chief Designer” Elon Musk, the architect of an “Interplanetary Transport System” that he envisions will enable mass human migration to Mars.
SpaceX and its various activities are showcased prominently in Mars with story-moving references and clips. So, not too unexpectedly, the spacecraft chosen for the Mars series bears a remarkable resemblance to the futuristic animated video of a SpaceX Interplanetary Crew Transport System that Elon Musk released during his recent, highly promoted International Astronautical Congress (IAC) speech. After a decelerating aerothermal entry into the martian atmosphere, the vehicle pitches around for a propulsive braking burn onto an upright, vertically precarious landing. From the discussion in the “documentary” portion of the first episode, including clips of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage landings, the casual viewer is left with the false impression that this “Entry-Descent-Landing” problem has been solved. This is far from the case. To date, landing on Mars has proven to be extremely problematic and more often than not, attempts have been unsuccessful.
Not shown in series’ intermingling of fact and fiction are the many outstanding problems and questions about a human mission to Mars. Interestingly, the opening episode doesn’t include the launch of mission pieces, the ship’s assembly and fueling in space, the departure of the Mars mission, nor are we given a window into their subsequent months of boredom and peril during the 6-9 month journey to Mars. That the crew risks exposure to several lifetime limits worth of radiation is alluded to, but nothing is revealed about how this hazard is to be addressed and mitigated. In the accompanying interviews and short films, the series’ producers note that the focus of the film is deliberately put on activities to be undertaken on Mars – on establishing a human foothold on the “Novo Mundo.” In the opening episode, the possible ill effects of radiation and solar UV exposure, toxic soil chemistry, and the numbing cold in the near-vacuum of the martian surface are lightly skipped over or set aside.
One of the more contrived aspects of the first episode is its depiction of the programmatic structure of the mission – the postulated creation of an “International Mars Science Foundation,” a politically correct, multi-cultural organization directed by a council of administrators and bureaucrats, convening at a round table (no doubt to indicate the universal equality of their status). A placard placed in front of each seated bureaucrat suggests that they represent the world’s space agencies (I saw JAXA on one of them). Presumably, either the world has banded together to finance this venture or Elon’s reusable spaceships have made Mars voyaging a trivial expenditure. Considering that none of the SpaceX Mars architecture pieces have gotten within 2000 miles of any launch site, this series is more Nova Fabula (new fable) than Novo Mundo.
In fact, this whole exercise is more akin to a worship service for the Mars faithful than it is a serious science and engineering documentary bent on sketching out a future for space travel. No identifiable rationale or motivation is given for this journey – more “on a hope and a prayer” than actual engineering and science. The short “Why Mars?” featurette on the NGS web site repeats the usual smorgasbord of platitudes – “because it’s there,” “human destiny,” “search for life” – but none of these reasons are unique to a human Mars mission. Why Mars and why “next” are two questions that go unanswered. It is simply assumed that viewers will agree with the premise of the producers (and the series’ contributing experts) that Mars is the “obvious” next destination in space, making those who believe differently unfashionably out of touch and probably “anti-science.”
This promoted fable – that Mars represents “humanity’s destiny” – takes a still very far-away vision, and through the use of spectacular imagery and propaganda, attempts to sell it to a public accustomed to instant gratification and thus programmed to “believe.” This suits many in positions of power. Hyping the romance of a human Mars mission keeps the public (not to mention a highly compliant and ignorant media) from asking tough questions of their leaders and their space agency: “How are you going to get to Mars?” “What will you do when you get there?” “Why this, to the exclusion of all else?” “Is there a more efficient way?” “What is the payback for those who will foot the bill?” Perhaps these questions will be addressed in future episodes, but somehow I doubt it.
Regardless of how the facts evolve and emerge over the next 20 years, since the National Geographic Society has chosen to sell the idea of a Novo Mundo, its sizable institutional resources will aggressively launch and sustain a multimedia campaign to promote this Novae Fabula. The fictional Mars mission portrayed here is said to occur in 2033 – that’s only 16 years away. Here’s my prediction for what will actually occur in 2033: the powers-that-be then will predict that a human mission to Mars will take place “within the next two decades.”