‘Mars’: Behind the Scenes of National Geographic Channel’s Global Event Series

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo TV

“This is not sci-fi; this is actually reality,” actress Clémentine Poidatz says in the new trailer for National Geographic Channel’s Mars. The six-part series from executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, which we can announce will premiere Nov. 14 in the U.S. and Nov. 13 internationally in 170 countries and 45 languages, tells the fictitious story of Earth’s first crewed mission to Mars in 2033 — while weaving in the very real efforts happening in 2016 to get us there.

The scripted drama of an international crew reaching and attempting to colonize the Red Planet was filmed earlier this year in Budapest and Morocco. (Meet the characters aboard the spacecraft Daedalus and on the Mars Mission Corporation’s control team on the ground here.) The unscripted segments, which you can think of as seamless flashbacks, include interviews with 21 leading experts — among them, familiar names like Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Martian author Andy Weir, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk — as well as footage of scientists and engineers at work today.

“When I first heard 2033 [as the target date for a manned mission to Mars], I said, ‘Well, that’s absurd, like that’s around the corner,” Mars executive producer Justin Wilkes, RadicalMedia president of entertainment, tells Yahoo TV. “But when you start talking to people, you realize it is real, and it is very much in our grasp, and the technology, in some cases, has been there for even decades before, and anything that we don’t quite know, within the next 20 years, we’ll certainly be able to problem-solve and invent. … We said, ‘That’s a great foundation for our series,’ because the more we could use the documentary portion of our series for an audience to really understand the engineering that’s taking place today, the more realistic [it feels] when we actually then show the dramatized portions of our series where we’re in 2033, and we’re on that first mission. What kind of ship would they be on? How long would the mission actually take? How many people would be on that first ship? Where would they land? Why would they choose that particular place? All those things came directly from as much fact and science that’s being developed right now.”

For example, in a typical drama series, you would see the crew debating where they’re going to go. “But because there’s an added level of science to our show, we want the audience to understand it’s not just so easy as X marks the spot on the Martian map,” Wilkes says. “The first thing [to consider] is cosmic and solar radiation is a huge issue on Mars because there’s much less atmosphere on Mars than there is on Earth. Suddenly you’re susceptible to high levels of radiation, so your first order of business is going to be to find a location that is going to protect you from that. Going underground is probably our best way to protect ourselves in the long term. Finding a lava tube that’s actually sustainable for life is an important part of that. Finding a lava tube that’s large enough for not just our crew of six, but an eventual colony, is the next added challenge there. Then finding a lava tube that has access to some form of water — in our case, it’s an underground glacier — is the next step. Again, all based on science.”

In later episodes of the series, viewers will see the larger colony, a settlement called Olympus Town. “Everything obviously has to be flown up there. There’s nothing that can be made locally. So how do you design habitats, and structures, and furniture that can be easily folded, and that’s lightweight, and that could be constructed with minimal effort in a pretty harsh environment?” Wilkes says. “There’s obviously a few instances where we took a leap forward into the future, but it’s a leap that’s still very much rooted in the actual science.”

Related: First Look: Nat Geo’s ‘Mars’ Miniseries From Ron Howard and Brian Grazer

The film crew, led by Mexican filmmaker Everardo Gout (Days of Grace), who directed all six episodes, traveled around the world for those documentary-style segments that inform both the audience and the scripts. “We were able to travel to Antarctica and spend time at McMurdo base, which is very much a present-day analogy for what a Martian settlement might be like. There’s current tests that NASA and others are doing down there as to the kind of very harsh conditions that are present,” Wilkes says. “We also spent time in Hawaii, on the side of the Mauna Loa volcano. There was a study called HI-SEAS, which actually just wrapped up, that was a NASA-funded experiment where they put a small crew of people in an enclosed situation and essentially ran it as if it was going to be a Mars mission, with no outside communication. Everything was on a time delay. We spent some time both with the people who were inside of it, via a remote link, as well as some of the people who were studying it to see what the implications of a long-term expedition like that would be on crew behavior and psychological behavior. We were also in Russia following some of the progress of the Roscosmos space program and some of the stuff that they’re doing leading up to a potential Mars expedition. So we really represent a collection of what the world is doing right now to prepare.”

Still, Wilkes’s favorite location was the Hawthorne, Calif., offices of SpaceX. “Just because what they’re doing is so exciting, and there’s aspects of SpaceX that they’ve historically never allowed an outside crew in to document that we were granted access to,” he says. “Just seeing the energy and enthusiasm on their factory floor is something that I think very few people have seen unless you have the pleasure of actually getting to go there. It harkens back to, I don’t want to say the ‘glory days of space,’ because I’m hoping that we’re back in the glory days, but even going back to the ’60s, where there was just this excitement around the Apollo program, and all the best and the brightest were coming out of universities to work at NASA. That sort of fell off a bit, as we just got stuck, as Elon likes to say, in low Earth orbit. And when you go to SpaceX, you see an age range from 20-year-olds up to 60-year-olds, and people who are clearly the best and brightest out of MIT, and Caltech, and all the great science schools. You also see the slightly more seasoned, probably former NASA or government contractor types walking around. They’re all just intermingling on the factory floor, and they’re building rockets, and Elon’s desk is in the middle of all of it, so it has this mix of being a sort of tech Silicon Valley startup, and, at the same time, they’re building rockets on the same factory floor. I think that’s going to be an exciting thing for people to see.”

Mars premieres Nov. 14 on National Geographic Channel, airing weekly on Mondays at 9 p.m. through Dec. 19. Prepare yourself at www.MakeMarsHome.com.