Former NASA Astronaut, Dr. Mae Jemison, Discusses New ‘Mars’ Series

The National Geographic Channel has premiered MARS—an epic six-part television series that promises to capture the minds of teenagers and adults alike. The series, produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, highlights the planet Mars in both the future and present day. MARS combines a “feature-film-quality scripted drama and visual effects with best-in-class documentary sequences” to tell the story of the “quest to colonize Mars,” according to National Geographic Channels’ news release. The drama of the fictional first crewed mission to Mars aboard spacecraft Daedalus will entertain young minds, while the documentary sequences and interviews will inspire and educate, offering a viewing opportunity for the whole family.

Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel to space, teamed up with the National Geographic team to help write the series. Dr. Jemison acted as an adviser on space operations for the series, assisting the cast and crew with their portrayals of the Mars astronauts. Read Dr. Jemison’s thoughts on this new series and on her many accomplishments in this interview with Learning Liftoff:

When you were approached by National Geographic about the MARS series, what were your biggest initial concerns? Were there any other filming or production concerns that you had during the duration of the project? 

Mae Jemison: “Originally NatGeo asked me to be interviewed about going to Mars. And while I was keen to do that, I was more interested in helping shape the veracity of ‘how the story of human space exploration’ was told on the visceral level. That is the mission drama. Today, so many people learn from what they see in videos, online, or in the movies. As always, the picture (and the video) is worth a thousand words. We remember what we experience in a story. So my concerns were around the lasting impressions. For example, ‘human’ mission to Mars instead of ‘manned’ mission—isn’t that off-the-bat more inclusive? Not just across gender but the world. Let’s make injuries, accidents, and responses that compel a story forward accurate with the truth and facts we know. There are lots of people who populate the fields of space technology and science. Let’s explore some of the different personalities and motivations. I was so warmed by the great reception that I received with putting some of these concepts forward and pushing on the scripts. Also working with the cast was phenomenal. I wanted them to be comfortable with space.”

What do you want people to take away from this series? On the level and perspective of adults and as children who will be the next generation of astronauts potentially exploring space in 2033.

Mae Jemison: “I hope that people will be drawn into not just the adventure, but the concreteness of space exploration. I hope it will push us to make a commitment to move faster. It doesn’t have to wait. Perhaps it will stimulate us to say, let’s do this now. Or even, what about committing to do more.”

This question is asked in the first episode, and I’d like to ask you the same question. Mae, when did you first know that you wanted to become an astronaut? And what was the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome?

Mae Jemison: “I always assumed I would go into space. Growing up, I thought it would probably be as a scientist working on Mars! I realized it would have to be as an astronaut as a profession when our advances in human space exploration slowed. That was when I was in college.”

What are the questions we’ll be left with after we’ve all watched the MARS series? And in the year 2016, where do we stand (what position are we in) to answer those questions and to come up with real resolutions to growing concerns?

Mae Jemison: “The questions we have to answer today are really about commitment as a global society to doing something bold together. I am sure many will have the almost reflex question, ‘Why spend so much money on space instead [of] life here on Earth?’ The answer is that [the] life of everyone on this planet has been fundamentally enhanced by the technologies developed for space exploration—and no, I’m not talking about Tang, which folks jokingly say. From GPS and maps on cell phones, to algorithms used to build pictures from MRI data (developed with remote sensing), to whether satellites and the incredible number of science, engineering, IT, and technical professionals inspired knowledge about climate, resources, and the evolution of our planet, we are in a position to know that the benefits will accrue. Yet the story has to be told in a way people understand. Tackling a very difficult challenge makes one come up with new avenues of thought, technologies, and knowledge that working on the mundane probably would not generate. Leading the 100 Year Starship initiative now, to ensure capabilities for human interstellar flight within the next century, I believe this is best represented by the title of our proposal that won the DARPA seed funding grant ‘An Inclusive Audacious Journey to Enhance Life Here on Earth and Beyond.’”

Visit National Geographic’s MARS website to learn more about the series. Educators can incorporate the MARS series into their curriculum.

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