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.