Red Planet fast-track

Posted by Francis Reddy
on Wednesday, November 07, 2007
It’s the year 2030, and humans are finally undertaking interplanetary travel with a historic mission to the Red Planet. This is the premise for Discovery Channel Canada’s 4-hour “Race to Mars” mini-series, which the network describes as its most ambitious project to date. (Watch the trailer.)  The show premiered in Canada September 23, but air dates for the U.S. are not yet available.

However, the companion book to the series is. In Race to Mars, writer and artist Dana Berry chronicles the fictional voyage and discusses the science and historical incidents used to frame the story’s plot. Astronomy readers are familiar with Dana’s illustrations, which include our March 2007 cover. I worked closely with him on February 2007’s “When planets stray,” which graphically explained a process astronomers call planetary migration

Dana gives his digital paintbrush a few turns in Race to Mars, but his primary role here is as writer. He weaves technical explanations and historical perspectives into the mini-series’ tale of interplanetary adventure. The lavishly illustrated book naturally features lots of artwork and NASA images. Topics include technological failures, radiation hazards, bone loss from weightlessness, the psychological state of the crew, and health risks from exposure to toxic substances. On this latter point, Dana recalls the March 2004 incident in which potassium hydroxide leaked from a Russian oxygen generator aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The chemical was irritating, but not lethal (“tox-2,” in NASA-speak).

Judging from the episode descriptions here, the broadcast voyage has more than its fair share of glitches. But I see this less as a criticism of the story than an acknowledgement of dramatic demands.

Still, astronaut Scott Parazynski’s nail-biting, 7-hour spacewalk November 3 to fix a torn ISS solar panel reminds us that, in space, you’re often your own repairman. And, if you’re far enough from home, what you can’t fix can kill you. 

The book in brief: Race to Mars, by Dana Berry, 192 pages, Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 2007, hardcover, $24.99
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