“When you go to Mars, you will redefine the concept of loneliness”
Although produced in 2005 and aired throughout Europe on the Discovery Channel, it strangely took a little longer for Scott Gill's examination of the Mars Society, founded by NASA aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, to reach North American airwaves.
Gill's doc was chopped down from a reported 84 mins. to a brutal 54 mins., although a recent airing on March 22 nd by CBC's The Passionate Eye news show ran 68 mins. There are interview and animated montages that still bear the crude hack-edits, but at least this longer version offers more information on Zubrin's quest to simplify a manned mission to Mars from a monstrous $400+ billion dollars Big Science project spanning 30 years to an estimated $55 billion project, spanning 10 years.
Dubbed the '90 Day Plan' by the elder George Bush administration, the initial project was designed to integrate existing Big Science projects like the space station, erect a launch pad on the moon, and send a team of astronauts to Mars over 2.5 years for a “flag and footprint” mission – basically sending the team back to Earth after sticking a flag in the sand and doing little else.
Zubrin's strategy of using existing technology made various governing and bureaucratic bodies much happier, particularly since the project, dubbed Mars Direct, would keep astronauts on Mars for more than a year to collect data before heading home. What didn't make NASA happy was how Zubrin's plan completely excluded the space station and shuttle – basically projects by rival companies that might see their own purpose and funding reduced if Zubrin's simplified project took off.
Gill's interviews include critics, colleagues, and followers, but there's no denying his vision of reaching and colonizing Mars was the most attractive, particularly when the use of pre-existing elements and resources on Mars would be integrated into the scientific and exploration projects – far more purposeful than going back to the moon, which comparatively resembles a glowing boulder covered in dust.
To NASA, Zubrin's Mars mission also felt realistic due to its simplicity, and as dramatized via digital animation montages, Mars Direct plays like a classic sci-fi tale, goosed with grandiloquent Kubrickian images.
The flaws within the project were eventually reconciled within NASA, and while Zubrin cheekishly dubbed the new mission as “Mars Semi-Direct,” it still read like a hypnotic program that would have men and women explore and ultimately terraform the planet – and that's where the doc really gets interesting, furthering the possibility that Mars could be colonized over several generations from a colonial outpost to a vibrant community with its own social and governmental structure – the stuff that's inspired novels and screenplays for decades.
Director Gill also covers existing problems regarding solar flares and cosmic rays which could dose the astronauts with lethal radiation, and practical ‘analogue' trials designed to test one's ability to live within the restrictive daily routine on Mars (clothing, walks, equipment uses, and tight social quarters in a desolate terrain.
The parallels to Columbus and early Chinese marine explorations and trade missions are repeatedly raised throughout the doc, and even if one regards the grand plan as economic folly - funding a vain quest when more serious issues are mucking up the planet - it's a heck of a fascinating dream project that feels more tangible, since those rust-tinted snapshots of Martian geology and geography from NASA's little rovers continue to amaze us.
Note: For additional information on The Mars Underground, click HERE to read our interview with composer James Michael Dooley.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan