Ron Howard: Creating vision of a future Mars colony

The series Mars envisages how a pioneer human settlement might function on the Red Planet

To mark the second season of the television series Mars, Hollywood director Ron Howard talked to the BBC about creating a realistic depiction of the first human colonies on the Red Planet.

If humankind is to expand out into the Universe, then Mars is likely to be our first stepping stone. With an atmosphere largely consisting of carbon dioxide and temperatures that vary between 20C and -125C, the Red Planet isn’t exactly ideal for human occupation.

We’d have to adapt to living almost entirely within sealed habitats – so outdoors-y types need not apply.

But there is perhaps a bigger issue in play. Colonising Mars would provide humankind with a lifeboat, ensuring our species’ survival if some giant catastrophe were to befall civilisation – let’s say an asteroid strike, or an ecological breakdown.

It’s something that several big names – such as SpaceX founder Elon Musk – are thinking hard about.

Through a hybrid of drama and documentary, National Geographic’s Mars series explores how humans would establish themselves as an interplanetary species. Season two of the series begins on 11 November.

Mars’ Oscar-winning executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are responsible for a long list of hit Hollywood movies, including Splash, Cocoon, A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13, as well as landmark television series such as From the Earth to the Moon, which told the story of the space race.

Ron Howard told BBC News that while he’s a big fan of space exploration, he was not initially sold on the importance of settling Mars.

“When I first began the series a couple of years ago, I thought it was a great idea to do an adventure about going to Mars and we should make it as real as we possibly could,” Mr Howard says.

“But I wasn’t sure I believed in the idea of going to Mars. I knew I believed in the idea of space exploration… and any show that advocated that was making a statement that was healthy and positive for human beings – to inspire their imaginations to look outward.

“But as I have gone through the process of working on the show and interviewing some of the big thinkers, I now really do believe in it strategically – I don’t mean that from a military standpoint, I mean it from the point of the ongoing evolution of the human species… I not only believe it’s viable, I’m a big supporter.”

Season one of Mars followed the crew of the spacecraft Daedalus, as the astronauts attempted to create a pioneer settlement on the Red Planet in 2033. Season two is set nine years later and follows the fortunes of the first fully-fledged colony. The script tackles the everyday challenges of the settlers, including the first births on the Red Planet, outbreaks of disease and mechanical breakdowns.

It also documents the tensions between scientists who want to study the planet and private companies who want to profit from its natural resources.

“Here in our show, we have interests that are not entirely aligned in the expedition. Private sector vs this international group of scientists. And it hasn’t all been worked out on Earth; they each have their agendas and their orders. It’s in the fine print that the conflict develops,” said Mr Howard.

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