When Stephen Petranek was writing his book How We’ll Live On Mars, the then Administrator of NASA and former astronaut Charles Bolden pulled Petranek aside to show him something on NASA’s website. “It says right here on the website, in big bold letters, NASA has no plans to send humans to Mars,” Bolden told Petranek, who’s had a long journalistic career covering emerging science and technology. Within the next year, NASA named a director for a manned mission to Mars. We’ll stop short of giving Petranek too much credit, but it’s clear that in the years since he started writing the book, there’s been a palpable sense of excitement for pushing space exploration further than it’s ever gone before.
As the source material for National Geographic’s event series Mars, Petranek’s book showed that landing a manned mission on Mars isn’t as far fetched as NASA’s party line once made it out to be. The first season of the docu-drama focuses on both real-life characters who wants to get to Mars and a fictional future timeline where astronauts land on a planet outside of Earth for the first time. Since Mars premiered two years ago, we’ve seen documentaries and ficitonal dramas explore similar territory. Now with Mars returning to Nat Geo for a six-episode second season beginning November 12th, the series is boldly jumping ahead by envisioning what life on Mars could be like in the years after that first mission.
“Not only was there far more serious science and thought behind what the human experience as going be, and what it was going to take to get there, but when you talked to these individuals there was an excitement,” Mars executive producer Ron Howard said during a recent event in New York. “The other thing that I didn’t realize was how much work was actually going on, not just theory, but real experimentation, real interesting projects.”
With a new showrunner, Dee Johnson, Mars season 2 will have a fresh outlook on how a Martian colony would progress. In the season one finale, a debilitating tragedy puts the entire mission in jeopardy until they make a seismic discovery: There is life on Mars. After a time jump, season two begins with new crew members making the journey to Mars to join a bustling colony of a few thousand people. Naturally, that means the private sector wants in on the fun. A company called Lukrum comes to Mars with the intention of mining the planet for its resources. The 140 million mile view of season two is whether exploration and exploitation can co-exist.
“It all came from the idea that they’re in a new frontier, and are we as humans destined to repeat the same mistakes?” Johnson told Den of Geek. “Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes of explorers of the past, where you just exploit, exploit, exploit, versus exploring?”
The documentary portion of season two explores Greenpeace activists in the Arctic, scientists bracing some of the Earth’s harshest conditions for important climate data, and how nations are protecting fragile ecosystems.
“We’re looking at a world in which they’re trying to drill in the Arctic and we’ve cleared forests,” Johnson said. “We have sucked so many resources and we’re in a climate change world and a lot of that could have been avoided if done with a more measured hand. [Season two is about] looking at does human greed intervene even on Mars?”
Much of the dramatic tension in season two will come from the people who seek to profit off the red planet.
“Frankly, if people don’t make money on Mars, Mars is never gonna happen,” said Petranek, who serves as co-executive producer on the series. “You can’t bring anything from Earth to Mars, except possibly dried food for a long time, because it’s just too expensive. You can’t bring water to Mars, everything you make on Mars, everything you 3D print on Mars, every habitat you make, it’s gonna have to come from the martian soil. You’re literally gonna have to dig it out of the ground, and refine it, and make it there.”
In season two, the initial IMSF crew wants to continue their scientific research unbothered. The newcomers from Lukrum are making their lives harder at every turn. At one point, a fist fight breaks out in a common area. While the first season was about the journey to Mars, public opinion and bureaucracy, and the first stages of developing a colony, the fictional narrative in the new episodes dive into more personal territory.
“I was really interested in how these people were staying sane and how they didn’t crack psychologically with all the pressure,” Johnson said. “They’ve made this nice little world and then these other people come in and it changes everything.”