Suspending disbelief is a prerequisite for watching most major sci-fi films and series as of late. For me, I have to do the same for series like The First, which debuts on Hulu on September 14 and put a fictional twist on real-life US space policy.
One of the difficulties with envisioning a human mission to Mars today is that it requires a real suspension of belief to accept the idea that the United States or any other entity in the world would mount such a mission now or in the near future.
Sure, NASA has on- and off-again plans to send people to Mars in the 2030s. But anyone who follows space policy closely knows that the agency has neither the funding nor the mandate to make that happen any time soon. There is also little appetite in Washington DC or in some quarters of NASA to confront the very real risk of sending humans to Mars. At some point, if we’re going to do that, we have to accept the possibility that people will die.
SpaceX has even grander ambitions to settle Mars than NASA and some impressive rocket technology. The company’s founder, Elon Musk, has also acknowledged that some of the first people who go will probably die. But a clear-eyed analysis reveals that the risk-tolerant company doesn’t have the money for such an undertaking right now on its own.
Really, the only way I see for humans to reach Mars in my lifetime—I’m a relatively healthy 45-year-old—is for NASA to stop trying to recreate the Apollo-like program of the 1960s and for DC policymakers to more fully embrace the private industry.
If you combine NASA’s funding and planning together with the energy, cutting-edge technology, and fiscal rigor of private industry, the Red Planet does not seem so far away.
New TV series
So when I began watching The First, Hulu’s forthcoming drama series about a human mission to Mars, I was intrigued by the premise that NASA had funded a private company to send its astronauts to Mars. The fictional company is not named SpaceX, but rather Vista. Its chief executive officer isn’t Elon Musk but a similarly determined woman named Laz Ingram (if you scramble the letters in her name, you get Ilan Margz. Close enough).
I won’t divulge any spoilers, even though there are some big ones about halfway through the first episode. But as the space editor for Ars Technica, I do have to pick a few nits with the rockets I saw.
The basic Mars architecture makes sense, as the crew intends to launch from Earth to rendezvous in orbit with a larger Mars transit vehicle. The crew is aiming for a seven-month journey to Mars, followed by 18 months on the surface, before using a Mars-ascent vehicle to blast off the surface and rendezvous again with a Mars transit vehicle. This is one of NASA’s basic plans for its 2.5-year Mars mission.
However, the crew launches into space on a rocket that looks strikingly like NASA’s Space Launch System, a massive rocket with a huge core stage and two large solid-rocket boosters. Hulu didn’t include any promotional images of the rocket, so I can’t show one here. But trust me on this. And it makes absolutely no sense for a crew of five people to launch on a titanic, super-expensive rocket like that (in a frankly huge-looking capsule) when they could ride into space on a small, cheap, reusable rocket and spacecraft.
Moreover, neither of the two companies that aspires to build private, giant rockets (SpaceX and Blue Origin) has plans to build anything like the expendable SLS rocket that includes solid rocket boosters. Both are going for a big first stage with multiple, liquid-fueled rocket engines that can be reused.
Finally, Vista’s operations are based in Louisiana near New Orleans. This is realistic, as NASA has a huge rocket factory there left over from the Apollo and space shuttle days at Michoud. It makes sense that, if NASA were to select a private rocket company to build a Mars program, the agency would ask it to do so in Louisiana. What makes no sense is that the crewed rocket launches from Louisiana. Rockets generally launch eastward (to gain extra velocity from the Earth’s rotation) or northward (to enter a polar orbit for a satellite, over a vast expanse of ocean).
A brooding ex-astronaut
With that being said, I liked the show. Sean Penn stars as a brooding ex-astronaut kicked off the Mars mission for reasons not revealed in the first episode. We see plenty of shots of Penn looking skyward, wondering what might have been. There are perhaps too many of these scenes, but overall his character is believable as a veteran astronaut who is concerned about his former crew mates. Natascha McElhone plays Elon Musk—excuse me, Laz Ingram—and is also credible as a CEO of a hard-driving aerospace company.
The show was created by Beau Willimon, who also created House of Cards. His fingerprint can be spotted on the subtle (but effective) music as well as the outdoor scenes that give the show a sense of place.
I am no television critic—I just write about space. But what I liked about The First is that it doesn’t exist in some far-off universe. It feels real, like something that could happen in our own world if Congress were to get serious about going to Mars and to realize that a lot of the critical action is happening in private industry rather than NASA field centers.
I’m looking forward to watching the rest of season one, which has eight episodes, to find out why Sean Penn’s astronaut didn’t get to lead the Mars mission himself. Even more, I’m curious why the US government finally decided to spring for a Mars mission now, after half a century of waiting for a significant follow-up to the Apollo landings on the Moon. The First feels real enough that it just might explore that question down the road.