On Halloween night a young fella dressed as an astronaut came to my door. After issuing him his chips and candy I asked where he wanted to go – the moon or Mars? "The moon," he said. He informed me loftily that the moon is only 384,400 kilometres from Earth. On the sidewalk, his mother beamed at his erudition. Mars, he informed me, was too hot and too far away.
This surprised me. Mars isn't hot; apparently it's cold. But his certainty was a shocker. Maybe it's the fallout from the movie The Martian and the excruciating difficulties experienced by our friend Matt Damon up yonder on the red planet. You see, Mars, I thought, was all the rage.
According to Destination: Mars (Thursday, CBC, 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things), Mars is indeed all the rage. Made by former CBC honcho and legend Mark Starowicz, it starts with the questions, "Why Mars?" and "Why now?" From there, it proceeds at a jaunty pace and it's a very likeable and rather provocative documentary.
Astronaut Chris Hadfield tells us Mars has been intriguing since the first telescopes gave earthlings a look at it. It's a destination that has inspired centuries of fantasy. Then we see Barack Obama declaring blithely that the United States is aiming to reach Mars and put people on it. Just like that.
We also meet Erisa Hines, who is straight out of The Big Bang Theory, a chipper scientist based at research facilities in Pasadena, Calif., where she's a jet-propulsion specialist working on NASA's Curiosity Rover team.
Scenes of the rover landing on Mars are followed by very cool footage of Hines driving the rover around Mars from her desk in Pasadena. "There is something very home-like about Mars," she says. "The images show things that you might find in your backyard."
The Curiosity Rover's wheels have been damaged by sharp rocks, we're told, but, of course, it still managed to discover rocks that indicated a surface at one time covered in water. We all remember that – the declaration that there was probably life on Mars at one point.
Then we're off to Sudbury, Ont., where Canadian scientist Dr. Barbara Sherwood Lollar – many of the scientists interviewed here and in the United States are women – go under the Canadian Shield to study rocks as old as those rocks on Mars. Microbes can live in them is the gist. The world's oldest water sits in a University of Toronto lab and we get a good look at it.
Meanwhile, researcher Dr. Bethany Ehlmann is in Red Rock Canyon in California. She's very cheerful about "the grand slam, home run for Mars science" and tells us that Mars holds the key to clues about the Earth's evolution. We meet astronauts who are in training for a possible mission to Mars and we get eye-popping footage of various facilities where the trip is being researched. Apparently by about the 2030s, it might be no bother at all to go there for a visit.
The doc pivots on the matter of the various countries and companies that have a stake in getting to Mars. Here, the gee-whiz aura diminishes and we hear from skeptics who point out that a vast, self-serving aerospace industry is sustained by the Mars mania. It is also pointed out that most of the military satellites sent up to Mars are, in fact, pointing down at Earth, not into outer space. There is, you see, a very dark side to the Mars craze.
While there are fascinating characters in the doc, and the cheerful, often giddy optimism is infectious, the upshot of the program is wariness. We learn about Bas Lansdorp, the Dutch entrepreneur and co-founder and chief executive officer of Mars One. He want to put people on Mars for business reasons and create a reality-TV show about it.
And then there's Dr. Robert Zubrin, funder of the Mars Society, who has an elaborate plan to use Mars for industry and thereby make it habitable. Zubrin has clashed with Elon Musk, who has his own plans for getting to Mars. Also, there's the Las Vegas billionaire Robert Bigelow, who has a contract with NASA to create habitats suitable for the moon and Mars.
In the end, one comes away from Destination: Mars intrigued and a bit suspicious of the Mars mania.
That kid on Halloween night was dismissive of Mars and perhaps for the right reasons – it's a racket.