Mars on National Geographic | © 2018 NatGeo

Mars on National Geographic | © 2018 NatGeo

In Season 2 of MARS, Monday nights on National Geographic Channel, the series continues its unusual blend of scripted drama and documentary footage. In the future, scientists have established the first colony on Mars, but their research is threatened by the arrival of a private business team. Footage of real-life situations is used to illustrate how the issues examined in the story are playing out in the world today.

Former NASA astronauts Mae Jemison and Leland Melvin are both consultants on MARS. Jemison, who is both a medical doctor and an engineer, is the first African-American woman to travel in space when she was aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. She is currently involved in a project called LOOK UP, which asked people to look up on August 28, 2018 and record what they think, feel, hope, dream, see, fear, and post it. Jemison explains, “We hope to create a collage. The whole motivation is about how to get people connected.”

Melvin served on the space shuttle Atlantis in two missions, 2008 and 2009. On both missions, he and his team made deliveries to the International Space Station. Melvin is currently president of Spaceship Earth Grants, a public benefit corporation.

Although Jemison and Melvin did not work together in their time at NASA, they’ve clearly formed a working bond for the interview circuit, teasing one another and sometimes picking up each other’s sentences.

ASSIGNMENT X: Have you both been involved in MARS for both seasons?

MAE JEMISON: I’ve been involved with both seasons.

LELAND MELVIN: I’ve just been involved this season.

AX: Did you know each other when you were coming up through the NASA space program?

MELVIN: I knew of her. Everybody knows of her.

[Both laugh.]

JEMISON: I was in the program before Leland, and I left before he came in, but I had heard people talk about Leland, I knew he was there, and I ran into him at a drugstore in Nassau Bay.

MELVIN: At CVS.

JEMISON: At CVS. And he came up to me and said, “Hey,” but I already knew he was there.

MELVIN: But it was funny, because I saw her and I was, “That’s her, that’s Mae Jemison, ahhhhh!” Like a little kid.

JEMISON: That was nice.

MELVIN: You were actually like, “Shut up.”

[Both laugh.]

JEMISON: Don’t say that. I was pleasant.

MELVIN: You were pleasant …

AX: What did the MARS producers want to know from you? When you became involved, what areas of your expertise came into play here?

JEMISON: We have slightly different paths. Fhe first season, I was asked to be interviewed as one of the big thinkers for MARS, because I run a project called 100 Year Starship [which can be found at 100yss.org], which was seed-funded by DARPA, through a competitive grant, to ensure that the capabilities for human interstellar flight are a reality in a hundred years. Capability is not a launch date, but because we really wanted to push innovation in radical leaps in knowledge. So obviously, going to Mars is right down our bailiwick, and how do you do these things? I was speaking with Justin Wilkes, one of the creators and producers of MARS, and I said, “You know what? I’m tired of being interviewed on camera. I’d like to be involved with something where it’s behind the scenes, where I could help deal with those issues that make me talk at the television, to keep me from talking at the television. So how can I be involved then?” So I was then brought on as a scientific advisor, particularly working around crew and issues and scripts and how do things happen like that. So the first season, that’s what I did, mainly, and I worked with the cast members, we did a little space boot camp in Budapest, read lots of the scripts, how do you make things happen. I’m a medical doctor, also an engineer – how do you get people, injure people in such ways that the doctor might not know that they’re very seriously injured, on and on, things like that. So for me, that was really exciting, because it really decreased my, “They don’t do that, that would never happen!”

MELVIN: And [decreased] throwing things at the TV.

JEMISON: I don’t throw things at the TV, I might break it.

AX: So you’re drawing upon your expertise both from being a NASA astronaut and as a medical doctor?

JEMISON: Right.

MELVIN: And my involvement in Season 2 – I was filming [on the documentary series about Earth] ONE STRANGE ROCK, they were filming MARS, they said, “Hey, can you come give us an insight?” And so I guess it was more of my experience of living and working in space, and how you actually feel. Do you feel part of a community? Do you feel like you have this perspective shift, are you affected by it? All those things. So it was more my perspective of living and working in space, and they talked to me about it when I had my interview, and then that became part of the six episodes [of MARS Season 2].

JEMISON: He’s a big thinker. And the big thinkers are the folks who are coming along and giving context to the show, and helping to –

MELVIN: Make it real. You have this dramatic thread running through people fighting, having babies, all this stuff. But when you bring on someone who’s actually done it, and been there, then it makes it feel like it’s a possibility [who are watching], especially for kids. When they play videogames, they know it’s not real. When someone dies, they get reconstituted. But in the show, when you have someone talk about death and mortality and community and all these things, it makes it more real.

AX: What did you have the actors do when you put them through astronaut boot camp?

JEMISON: For me, the perspective was, what might it feel like, what kind of things that they might not know that they need to take with them as they’re developing their characters. A lot of people had this very mechanical idea of how astronauts operate. [They may not know] what the difference is between when you’re operating personally, and when you are actually going about your work, and how you respond, and you tell people, you have a positive handshake, all of those things that are procedural, but at the same time, people have personalities. People make stuff look too easy most of the time in space movies. So we did things like swimming in a pool and walking in a pool and finding how hard it is, so you’re thinking about the equipment differently. When you do a space walk, when you do all of those things, it’s not like lickety-split, it’s not like dancing on the ground. It’s harder. So we wanted to just get some of those feelings. They actually did tests. I had them do some role-playing with solving problems. So they were pretty good eggs. And then I shared some things about things I know about, both in space and on the ground, about people who are involved in space exploration.

AX: For both of you, when you were in space, if this question makes sense, were you more conscious of being in space, or of not being on Earth?

JEMISON: I think for me, it was being in space. It wasn’t a juxtaposition about Earth, it was really more of a connection with space and the rest of the universe. So from that sense, I guess it’s really that I’m in space, and then, you know what? The Earth is in space. We’re in space right now. All of a sudden, it changes this perspective. We are in space. We are the aliens for some other civilization. So all of a sudden, for me, it makes me much more connected.

MELVIN: I was so hyper-focused on doing my task effectively, and to install this two-billion-dollar European laboratory, that one of the German flight controllers, before I launched into space, everyone was celebrating that I was to be doing this, but I had never done it before, so one guy turned to me and said [using German accent], “Mr. Melvin, we’ve been waiting ten years. Don’t screw it up.”

[JEMISON laughs.]

MELVIN: And so I’m installing this thing, and I’m trying not to screw it up, and it’s getting installed correctly, and I thought that was my “aha” moment. But that paled in comparison to what happened next, when Peggy Whitson, the first female commander [of the International Space Station], invited us over to have a meal in the Russian technicians’ pit. “You guys bring the rehydrated vegetables, we’ll have the meat.” So we flew over with these vegetables, we’re breaking bread at 17,500 miles per hour, with Russians and Germans, who we used to fight against, the first female commander, [Melvin is] African-American, [another astronaut was] Asian-American. It was like a big Benetton commercial, right? And then Sade is playing, “Smooth Operator,” on the stereo. And so this moment is so surreal. And I look out the window, and I see my hometown, and Leo [Leopold Eyharts]’s hometown is coming up five minutes later in Paris. It just blew my mind. And that’s what made me more connected with the planet, and more connected with humanity.

AX: With current space exploration, and presumably space exploration for the foreseeable future, you know that you are risking your life, but you know that, if you live, you will come back to Earth. In the series MARS, the colonists plan to spend the rest of their life on Mars. How is the present-day astronaut mentality different from, “I’m leaving and I may spend the rest of my life on some other planet”?

JEMISON: I don’t know. I know that I would sign up to do that.

MELVIN: One-way trip?

JEMISON: Yeah, I would.

MELVIN: What about the cats?

JEMISON: They’d go with me.

MELVIN: So if the cats can’t go, you don’t go.

JEMISON: I might not go.

MELVIN: Okay. All right.

JEMISON: I think that we think about this in space, but if you think about folks who actually travel to other places, Nikki Giovanni wrote a poem called “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: We’re Going to Mars,” and it’s to juxtapose, as she says, if you think about Mars, and going there, as a one-way trip, think about, maybe you should ask African-American slaves who, people were captured on the coast of Africa, and as they left, and they lost sight of shore, they didn’t know where they were going, and they didn’t know that they wouldn’t be able to come home. How did they survive? How did they make a culture? How did they keep the energy of life? So taking it from a different perspective – so you ask that question, maybe we ask that question of people who are leaving their country, and they can’t go back. They may have another way of looking at it.

MELVIN: Yeah. I mean, the whole premise of that question is, if you survive. Because in the space station, we could be one failure away from the whole space station being gone, and everyone losing their lives. I don’t know. I feel like in any exploration that you do, there is that possibility for loss of life. When I was interviewing with John Young, for the Astronaut Corps, and after the interview, I went to this place called Petey’s, and he came up to me and said, “Leland, once we stop exploring as a civilization, we will falter and we will die.” So if we don’t do the exploration, we will die. And it may be a slow death, but the advances, the things that we need to survive, letting things go totally crazy, out of control with the climate and other things, we could perish just the same. So I see it as, as we explore, and as we go to these other places, we’re helping promote the livelihood of our humanity.

AX: If you could get to Mars, what would you most want to learn there?

JEMISON: I’d like to look back at the universe from another place. Because again, my whole thing is, people say that they feel very small when they’re looking, thinking about the Earth, and the Earth is this small thing. But the way it’s not small is, how am I connected? Am I connected to a whole universe? And so if I got to Mars, the knowledge that I’d want is, what it feels like looking back at the Earth, and knowing it’s part of this universe, looking at stars from another perspective. I think that knowledge helps to anchor me in this universe, which is I think one of those things we all are searching for. Other people might come by it differently, but I know that that would make a really big difference to me.

MELVIN: I think one can know on MARS, the people that are coming that I would be working with –

[Both laugh.]

MELVIN: That would have a very, maybe not a similar mindset, well, maybe have a similar mindset in that we are a community working together, and wanting to work together in harmony and peace and all that. I would like that to be the case, but with this industrial [mindset of business entrepreneurs], making money for trips, that probably wouldn’t happen, but I would like people to know that at least we’re trying to do that for the people here.

AX: And what would you both most like people to know about MARS, the television series?

JEMISON: I believe that it presents an interesting way to really understand a complex of things – how we make choices, how science can underlie our choices, whether we make them for commercial reasons or otherwise, that those things are important, and who is involved is really important.

MELVIN: And to take up on the “who is involved,” I like the fact that MARS, both Season 1 and Season 2, are really representing diversity, and putting people that have historically not been in leadership roles, in leadership roles, which will allow from the edu-tainment aspects of this show, to allow young children to see that they can be part of this future.

This interview was conducted during National Geographic Channel’s portion of the summer 2018 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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rticle: MARS: Astronauts Mae Jemison & Leland Melvin – exclusive interview

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