Thoughts on National Geographic’s Mars mini-series

Mars life awaits! (National Geographic/Robert Viglasky)

Well, this thing has set back the cause of space advocacy another 50 years.

We have now been subjected to six, 45-minute episodes of this dreary exercise in clueless propaganda. I expressed my initial reactions to the first episode previously and indicated my concern about the format, emphasis, dramatic pacing and factual content of the series. After watching all six episodes of Mars, my initial concerns about the quality and value of the entire series have been validated to a large degree.

Episode 6, Crossroads, covers the final existential crisis of the new Mars colony, in which all the previous accidents and difficulties borne by the colonists in the New World have rendered the entire project subject to termination (from which I take it that they are still dependent on Earth support and supply). Dolefully noting that “this isn’t the first time that we’ve had this problem,” the episode then proceeds to regurgitate a pastiche of spaceflight history recounted by advocates who describe how the Apollo project was the beginning of a human exodus into the cosmos, with a human mission to Mars as the first step, and how America betrayed their space dreams by not pursuing same.

All very enlightening – except that it was almost completely wrong from top to bottom, or at best subject to alternative – and a more logical – explanation. As I (and others) have written before, Apollo was not about conquering space, but was rather a Cold War battle for technical superiority, waged in space. The challenge issued by President Kennedy to the Soviet Union in 1961 was one of bloodless competition – which system was superior in terms of technological capability and managerial competence? At the time, the Soviets were ahead in space achievements, possessing heavy lift rockets and had already sent a man into orbit. In contrast, America had only flown Alan Shepard on a 15-minute suborbital hop. But because a race to the Moon required new technical developments that the Soviets did not yet have, it was thought to be a competition that America had a chance to win.

Apollo was successful because we marshaled the resources required to bludgeon all of the technical difficulties and programmatic obstacles into submission. And we were able to do this because at that time, we still possessed the technological-industrial infrastructure inherited from World War II and needed for the ongoing Cold War. With the primary objective of the Apollo program accomplished by Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, the imperative to send people beyond LEO receded in urgency. However, the idea that manned spaceflight was somehow important to national interests remained, but at levels of expenditure much lower than it had been for the previous decadal program. It was for this reason that the development of the Space Shuttle was undertaken as the follow-on for Apollo, as it was thought that a more inexpensive, reusable means of getting people and cargo into space was important for enhanced future levels of space activity.

The oft-repeated trope that “Nixon cancelled Apollo – and our chance for Mars” was presented as received wisdom by the talking heads of the Mars mini-series. But there are several problems with this interpretation. The Saturn V production line was shut down by Presidential order in 1968; the President at that time was Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Agnew report of 1969, that famously advocated a human Mars mission to follow Apollo, was never going to be embraced by the Bureau of the Budget (Office of Management and Budget after 1970). The budgeteers at the time looked forward to the end of human spaceflight, believing that it served no scientific or technical purpose and that these critical resources were needed in other areas of the budget. That this course was not taken can be attributed to the head of OMB, Caspar Weinberger, who thought that human spaceflight uplifted and inspired the nation. Weinberger wrote up these thoughts in a memo to Nixon, who penciled his agreement with them in the margins. Thus was settled the question of human spaceflight in America’s future.

But continued flights to the Moon were not in the cards. Two close calls, one on the Apollo 12 mission (where the vehicle was struck by lightning during launch) and then again during the Apollo 13 mission (in which an oxygen tank exploded on the way to the Moon), made the managers of the Apollo program (especially Bob Gilruth, the Director of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston) eager to conclude the series of lunar missions. In contrast to the statements made on the last Mars episode, Nixon did not terminate the Apollo program because he got “spooked” by the Apollo 13 accident. The last Apollo 20 mission was cancelled because its Saturn V was needed to launch the Skylab orbital space station fully outfitted and “dry” while the subsequent cancellation of Apollo 18 and 19 reflected the sense that the program had fully accomplished its goals of beating the Soviets to the Moon. Apollo hardware was considered too expensive to produce and was over-designed for routine flights to low Earth orbit. Hence, the Space Shuttle. And the Shuttle was originally supposed to be only the first element in an eventual “Space Transportation System” that included the Shuttle, a low Earth orbit space station, a Moon tug and an interplanetary spaceship.

But what’s a little mangling of history compared to the technical shortcomings of the series? A key plot development involves the death of a scientist who opens a lab door into the near-vacuum of the Mars surface, causing an explosion and the collateral deaths of several crew members. What kind of engineer designs a door in a habitat module that opens into space without an airlock? What possible purpose could this feature have? This is not to mention the greenhouse scenes, growing plants in martian soil, material that is loaded with perchlorates and peroxides (this issue was also ignored in last year’s film, The Martian). When the life-threatening problem of losing power develops during a global dust storm lasting for months, two crew members volunteer to brave the blinding storm and in an attempt to restore power to the complex. The base nuclear reactor had not yet been activated so they fix the connectors at a junction box to the solar arrays. How do solar arrays function during this seemingly endless global dust storm? The answer: not very well. Yet with this “fix,” full power is restored and all becomes normal back in the habitat.

But the most ludicrous plot element comes at the very end of the series. After enduring mechanical difficulties, problems locating the habitat, a global dust storm and a few deaths, the sponsors back on Earth are ready to pull the plug on this experiment in off-world living. But wait! Let’s go out for one last look and collect a sample from a distant outcrop, upwind from the previous collection area. They do – et voilà! Thread-like structures activate and move with the introduction of water onto a slide under a microscope. Life on Mars has been found! The press eagerly crowds around Joon Seung, twin sister of the Mars base commander Hana. Mankind’s settlement on the New World has been saved! Next stop, the stars!

Seriously, how pathetic is this? A human outpost that clearly is costing more than it is worth is saved at the last minute – by science. Anyone who has had more than 5 minutes experience dealing with research and development by any government or commercial entity must surely find this plot device laugh-out-loud hilarious. Yet it is a solemn rite for the Humans to Mars devotees, who believe that finding life guarantees the funding of an endless series of future missions to the Red Planet.

Bob Zubrin appears on screen to intone to the Senate Space Subcommittee that “Mars is where the science is, Mars is where the challenge is, and Mars is where the future is.” That is surely news to the 99.9% of the scientific community who conduct research totally unrelated to anything dealing with Mars. Yet this belief is deeply ingrained in the Mars advocacy community and within NASA as well. The concept that you might use space for practical benefits to create infrastructure and wealth seems alien to them.

Too bad Mystery Science Theater 3000 isn’t on any more – this series would make great fodder.

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16 Responses to Thoughts on National Geographic’s Mars mini-series

  1. I have to totally agree with you that the fictional segments of the show were horrendously bad, contrived, dumb, and unbelievable. The contrived nature of the script for the episodes was virtually constant and was obvious to almost all viewers. My “willing suspension of disbelief” was shattered over and over again during each episode. The script also makes incredibly wrong decisions about the design of the initial Mars “base”, such as the greenhouse module with an exit to the outside without an airlock. I am almost surprised that Ron Howard did not remove his name from the series, and it is clear that the NGS had essentially no creative control over it at all or did not care to exercise it.

    The factual segments of the show were reasonably done, and it would have been much better to have had just those segments run as a 2 hour special.

    The fictional part of the show was so bad that it think that most people will just write it off as an aberration and go about their business as if it had never been shown, in essence as a pebble thrown into a pond without a splash or a ripple.

    John Strickland

  2. Joe says:

    Thanks for the update, now will not have to watch the other episodes..

    After the first article, watched the first episode to determine for myself if it was as bad as reported and thought it was worse.

    The action, pacing, clichéd characters were boring (so it was not even entertaining) and (as you note) the technical accuracy was abysmal.

    Ignore The Martian, the first episode made the year 2000 movies Mission to Mars and Red Planet appear like documentaries.

    Anyone wanting to be entertained while at the same time getting more plot logic and at least as much technical veracity will be better off enjoying the TV series The Expanse.

    • billgamesh says:

      “Technical veracity” is in my view not a useful term describing anything concerning space the entertainment industry feeds to the public.

      This is common with any dramatically themed presentation intended for entertainment. Any police officer looking for entertainment from a police procedural or nurse or doctor looking for it on that kind of show or any military or other participant in whatever arena is going to be unhappy with creative license.

      Science fiction seems to get by on a peculiar form of suspension of disbelief where the person disregards the laws of physics or having no technical background at all does not question the gimmicks and bizarre premises. In my view it is not science fiction, it is “bad fantasy.”

      I watch the expanse because the characters, actors, and acting is good and the visuals are interesting but… a whole it is not in any way what I would expect our future in space to look like. And that is what hard science fiction is all about- predicting the future.

  3. LocalFluff says:

    Oh, yeah, they did find life on Mars at the end of the latest episode! I forgot about that, even though as an amateur enthusiast I feel obliged to painfully watch it all. The acting and the story is so bad that I better not comment on it further. Seems to me that so many people think that extraterrestrial life already has been discovered, especially since that meteorite Bill Clinton held a press conference about, that the “news” of it actually being true wouldn’t make a dent in the press headlines of the day. It would be the greatest anti-climax in the history of space exploration.

    I bet that TV series will end with the astronauts magically becoming self sustainable and revolting as a colony. That stuff, you know. And maybe some sexy Martian lifeforms will emerge from the lava tube. A giant green ant with boobs or something, this can get very kinky 1950s Hollywood scifi style.

  4. BJ says:

    To the last breath, Paul. O’ll have to handed to you, you definitely are like a dog on a bone …. persistent and unrelenting. This is like tuning into Trump (I mean the Mars hype, not you, nor Mars science): you know it’s bad for you, but you do in anyway perhaps because of some depraved and masochistic need one sometimes has to time-fill life with B-grade entertainment or, less often, curiously assess aspects of the human pathological condition. Sad thing, people do buy into it, and unthinking or immature types are impressionable; aren’t we all some of the time. Personally, I think I’ve about reached my limit and whatever Martian ‘music’ there ever was is starting to sound like noise: it eventually irritates the sh*t out of me.

  5. billgamesh says:

    The next epic will be about a pseudo-John Galt type who builds his own spaceship in a garage and despite being targeted for termination by the evil aerospace corporations manages to be crowned king of his own planet of libertarian hero-worshipers. In the end he is actually worshiped as the divine savior of mankind when his followers destroy the Earth with an asteroid they deflect toward the corrupt mother world using mining technology. The closing scene is like the party in the Matrix with praise-singing dancers jumping a dozen feet in the air in the low gravity cavern as the god-king looks down and smiles.

  6. Grand Lunar says:

    From my glimpses of the series, Mars more of a feel of pop culture sic-fi than one of any educational value.

    The history you provide of the space program is what is seriously lacking in the public knowledge, IMO.
    Even some pop-science authors fall for the erroneous narrative.

    Incidentally, many of the latter hosts of MST3k do an online series called Rifftrax.
    You might be able to convince them to do the Mars series.

  7. billgamesh says:

    “Apollo hardware was considered too expensive to produce and was over-designed for routine flights to low Earth orbit. Hence, the Space Shuttle.”

    The space shuttle ended up costing not much less than the Saturn V. That we could have been going to the Moon for the last 40 years makes me…..profoundly sad. For want of a few million dollars Mr. Brown sent Skylab up dry instead of with the second stage attached as a wet workshop.
    A larger station than the decade-in-the-making over 100 billion dollar ISS would have gone up in one evening. And those stations could have kept going up- dozens of them. Not that LEO stations have proven to be worth a dime. They are a dead end unless filled with water from the Moon and made to do something besides go in circles.

    The SRB’s of the shuttle were the major wrong turn. Not because they were solid fuel, but because they had to be of small enough diameter and segmented to be railed from and back to Utah. Thus, while monolithic solid fuel rocket boosters of 5 million pounds thrust had been fired and well over three times that figure were quite practical, the space shuttle was under-powered to the point that no mass for an escape system could be permitted to lower an already marginal payload.

    What could have made it all work or at least allowed a cargo version to succeed was the pressure-fed booster that was not selected as a cost-cutting measure.

    Pay now or pay later there is no cheap.

    It is still the missing piece of hardware and both Musk and Bezos failed the genius test by not first developing a pressure-fed ocean recovered booster like the one originally specified for the shuttle.

  8. James says:

    “There are many advantages to applying photofission for nuclear pulsed space propulsion. Photofission has been demonstrated by readily available sources, such as natural uranium isotopes, lead, and thorium [13] [14]. As opposed to a difficult to regulate neutron flux, photofission is controlled based on the activation of the ultra-intense laser, which can also be remote to the propulsion system [2].”

    From: ‘Project New Orion: Pulsed Nuclear Space Propulsion Using Photofission Activated
    by Ultra-Intense Laser’
    By Robert LeMoyne and Timothy Mastroianni

    “The Compton–Belkovich Thorium Anomaly was found in 1998 by the Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS) instrument on board the Lunar Prospector (LP) and subsequently identified as a hotspot, located around 61.1°N 99.5°E.[2] The estimated thorium concentration reaches 5.3 µg/g (5.3 micrograms per gram) while the surrounding highland basalts only contain between 0 and 2 µg/g. Compared to the Earth’s thorium concentration of 0.06 µg/g, the Compton–Belkovich’s is very high.[4]”

    From: “Compton–Belkovich Thorium Anomaly’ Wikipedia

    If a company or country lands a robotic rover, and eventually a team of geologists, on the Compton–Belkovich Thorium Anomaly, could that company or country then claim and mine all of the thorium there?

    While Americans spend valuable time watching Mars nonsense on TV and listening to Mars ‘Soon and Cheaply Too’ silliness from NASA’s leadership and Elon Musk, are other folks getting ready to go to the Moon and tap its resources to develop their spacefaring capabilities?

    “As envisioned by Russian engineers, the human-rated lander would consist of the 11-ton descent stage carrying landing gear and the propulsion system responsible for the trip from lunar orbit to the surface. In the meantime, the 8.5-ton ascent stage will contain the crew cabin with all the life-support gear and the engine to blast off from the lunar surface and to get back to the orbit around the Moon.”

    From: ‘Revealed: Russia’s Crewed Lunar Lander
    For the first time since the end of the Moon Race, Russian engineers have quietly begun working on a lunar lander capable of carrying cosmonauts to the Moon.’
    By Anatoly Zak Feb 3, 2016

    Going to the Moon to tap its resources to build its industrial capabilities, Space Based Solar Power Satellites, O’Neill cylinders, and enormous telescopes and develop NEO detection and interception and deflection capabilities, Cislunar tourism, and the ability to launch ‘time-honored’ or maybe even “New Orion” nuclear pulsed spaceships from the Lunar surface offers a lot more high technology jobs in space and on the Home Planet than anything that could be offered anytime soon by ‘flags and footprints’ or highly risky and costly colonies on Mars.

    Chemical propellant based and built on Earth spaceships would probably need to visit Lunar orbit to pick up massive amounts of Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR) shielding and propellant prior to heading off into Deep Space.

    An Orion nuclear pulse type of spaceship could launch itself directly from the Moon with its GCR shielding and propellant already onboard.

    If we humans are serious about exploring or mining or developing asteroids, NEOs, ‘Quasi-Moons’ like ‘2016 HO3’, and colonizing Mars, then large and powerful Orion nuclear pulse spaceships built on the Moon make a lot of sense.

    Get ready to build Orion nuclear pulse spaceships on the Moon or instead watch foolish and nonscientific TV shows about Mars.

    Is that such a hard choice?

  9. billgamesh says:

    Almost Two Zero One Seven!

    Happy New Year to Dr. Spudis and all who are hoping for a lunar return in the coming years.

    • James says:

      ‘No, you can’t always get what you want
      You can’t always get what you want
      You can’t always get what you want
      And if you try sometime you find
      You get the SLS you need’

      – Rolling Stones on the Moon ‘SLS and Orion Concert 2037’

      Happy New Year to Dr. Spudis, billgamesh, Joe, and all the other wonderful folks who appreciate our Moon!

  10. billgamesh says:

    “From the discovery of water ice on the moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines at the poles with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance.”

    The SLS can be what the shuttle should have been for the last 35 years- a Super Heavy Lift Vehicle sending worthwhile payloads to the Moon 8 to 10 times a year. The dead weight dragging the space agency down is the space station to nowhere and it’s associated worthless LEO taxis, the Absurd Retrieval Mission, and as always the always 10 years away J2M. The billions being pouring into these cul-de-sacs should be redirected into expanded SLS core production at Michoud and a lunar return.

    If the next NASA director can divorce NewSpace and point the space agency back at the Moon by funding the SLS and discarding useless programs then we are on our way. Otherwise, the “flexible path” will continue to take us nowhere at all.

  11. billgamesh says:

    Looking back at my comments from 3 and half years ago I see that nothing has changed.

    Though I became really interested in space exploration around 2006 in March of 2010 I was hooked (after Dr. Spudis’ work was key in finding ice on the Moon). I think that over 6 year journey will now reach some kind of turning point with the new NASA director.

    It seems the future of space exploration for decades to come- during the last quarter century of my life- is about to be set in stone.

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