The Red Planet is coming to your living room. On 14 November, the National Geographic Channel will broadcast its big-budget TV series MARS. It’s an unusual combination of documentary and a fictional dramatization. The real-life footage follows the company SpaceX and its chief Elon Musk as they try to develop reusable rockets—crucial technology to get to Mars—and includes interviews with scientists, astronauts, and space travel advocates. The drama tells the story of a first six-person crew arriving at Mars on the spaceship Daedalus in 2033 and surviving on the surface despite a series of mishaps.
Among the team who conceived the six-part series are Academy and Emmy award–winning producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard—director of Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and The Da Vinci Code. ScienceInsider spoke with Grazer and Howard by phone from California. Their responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Why the unusual mixture of fact and fiction?
Brian Grazer: We like to transport viewers to a world that is both cinematic and real—both are interesting. We love learning and it was great to get to speak with experts such as Elon Musk and get intimate with them.
Ron Howard: It’s a kind of creative opportunism. It’s part documentary and part drama—almost equal parts. On a thematic level, it celebrates exploration in a visceral way.
Q: Space travel is monotonous. How did you make life exciting for the fictional crew?
RH: It’s reality with the boring bits snipped out. We began with a great deal of research on coping with space and dealing with the challenges. We selected a few of these to dramatize.
We’re at a tipping point and a lot of individuals are working on these problems. [NASA astronaut] Scott Kelly dedicated a year on the international space station to see what that could do to a human being.
Q: There are many schemes to get humans to Mars. Which did you portray?
BG: We consulted with Stephen Petranek [author of How We’ll Live on Mars], SpaceX, NASA. It’s our best estimate. We tried to reflect what we’re learning.
Q: Is it a one way trip for the fictional crew?
RH: It varies from person to person. They are colonizing and have terraforming in mind. The immediate imperative is to survive but they want to create sustainability, to begin to build.
Q: Is the series a clarion call for more Mars exploration?
BG: I think it will stimulate debate, create a bridge between individuals and ideas they don’t know so well. It humanizes it, transporting people via the cinematic form.
RH: I hope it will inspire as well.