Think about it. In roughly 50 years, our knowledge of Mars went from this…
… to this.
Thanks to orbiters, landers, and rovers, we’re getting a grip on the planet that has gripped human imagination for millennia: Mars. Now the latest rover Perseverance could begin answering a question we’ve had all along—Is there other life in the universe?
I’m an executive producer at Smithsonian Channel and I had the pleasure of making the documentary Making Tracks on Mars, which premiered February 14, 2021. A lot of documentaries tackle this subject as a science story. For me, it’s an adventure story. I think this is Magellan or Lewis and Clark-level exploration—trailblazing in the highest order. We made our film feel like an adventure because most people think of Mars as a frontier. We surely get into the science, but at its core the story taps into our primal drive to explore.
We’re also taking our storytelling beyond the screen and into the realm of augmented reality. We worked with the National Air and Space Museum to create a companion app called Missions to Mars AR that allows you to explore Mars in 3D in ways that are both educational and laugh-out-loud fun. From driving a rover down your street to walking onto the surface of Mars yourself, it’s the next best thing to being there—until we actually get there, anyway. Check it out on the Google Play or App Store.
For the documentary, we worked closely the Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS). We conducted interviews with several scientists and took a few into the field to show how Earth compares and contrasts with Mars. Here’s one clip featuring Ross Irwin, geologist and Chair of CEPS—what better way to describe past water on Mars than by putting Ross in a canoe? (These are the things scientists do for TV producers.)
We also asked Mariah Baker, a post-doctoral fellow at the Museum, to help us understand wind on Mars. She’s traveled to some of Earth’s most Mars-like places to try to square how wind shapes both planets—and how it contributed to the demise of rover Opportunity. We filmed her segment at the coast (we had no trouble convincing Mariah to go to the beach).
The film focuses on Perseverance, but historic context makes its journey even more stunning. We unfold the story of Mars as humans discovered it—mission by mission, question by question. Mariner 4’s flyby, Mariner 9’s orbits, the seminal Viking landings—each exponentially advanced our knowledge of Mars. We marvel at the radical pace of innovation that took us from microwave-sized Sojourner to SUV-sized Perseverance. And we take a good look at what is sure to capture much of the attention—Ingenuity, the first space helicopter. If it works, it will be Mars’ Wright Brothers moment, and humanity’s first powered flight on another planet. Science fact is catching up to science fiction.
In addition to the science of Perseverance, we meet some of the people behind its design. We unpack the drama behind the scenes. There’s a pandemic to overcome. There’s fear of watching a decade’s worth of toil blow up on the launch pad (or as John Grant, senior scientist at the Museum, says in our film, we’re placing a $2.4 billion rover “on top of a giant bomb”). And of course, the building anxiety over the aptly-named “Seven Minutes of Terror,” when Perseverance could have burned-up in the Martian atmosphere or crashed on the surface if only one of a thousand things went wrong.
If TV writers are always looking for dramatic nail-biting moments, this story comes with a robotic armful. No overhype or embellishment necessary. It’s just a flat-out great adventure story, as we’re all overjoyed at the happy ending—and beginning—that began on February 18.
Dan Wolf is an executive producer at Smithsonian Channel and produced the documentary Making Tracks on Mars.