National Geographic's upcoming series Mars may only show a fake landing on the Red Planet, but make no mistake, say its creators: A real-life landing is coming soon.
"There will be a Mars mission by 2033," says Everardo Gout, director of the part-documentary/part-scripted series that premieres in November. "They will fly every two years, because that's when the planets are in close enough alignment."
Stephen Petranek, author of the book How to Live on Mars that inspired the series, says that within a few decades a million earthlings could have relocated to Mars.
Whether or not that's a precisely accurate figure or timetable, it does suggest the word "Mars" at some point will no longer be a synonym for "as unthinkably far away as you can get."
To Petranek, Mars is not only a wholly feasible adventurer's fantasy, but a place we need to reach and colonize as quickly as possible.
"At some point, humans on Earth will face extinction," says Petranek. "Whether it's from an asteroid or a viral plague or a volcano or something else. The only way we can ensure our survival is to have a viable population on another planet."
In fact, Petranek says, "Mars is just a stepping-stone" to the places we really need to reach, perhaps in other galaxies light years away. But for the moment, we need to make Mars our starter colony.
That said, Gout notes that his series isn't about the science of getting to and living on a planet that's really really cold.
"I knew about the technology, but making a film about that doesn't really interest me," he says. "I wanted to tell the human story, what happens with the people who go there. So I was very excited to get the call saying National Geographic wanted to do that, too."
Mars will toggle back and forth between the present and 2033, opening with a 2033 scene in which the first manned landing mission is seconds from touching down.
"What would that landing be like?" Gout says. "What happens when you step out? What are the nuts and bolts of it?"
He stresses we will not see a Gilligan's Island-like cast getting all zany when they touch down. The crew that makes that first mission, he says, will be highly trained astronauts.
"They will have spent a year just training in space," he says. "Remember, the trip to Mars takes 7-8 months, where they will basically be bouncing around inside a tin can. We have to know the effect that will have.
"They also have to be trained in all aspects of the mission, because they will have no outside support. Everyone has to be a mechanic, a medic, an engineer, a technician."
Gout and others involved with Mars note that in real life, several entities are working on the logistics of the journey. The most important right now, says Gout, are Elon Musk's SpaceX project and NASA.
In the end, he says, they will have to work together, along with other private companies and space agencies in other countries.
"None of them can do it alone," says Gout. "SpaceX, for example, is focusing on the rockets," while NASA has developed a machine that generates oxygen.
With all this coming together, then, would Gout himself like to go to Mars?
"Yes," he says after a short pause, "if I could get a return ticket. I probably wouldn't go now because I wouldn't leave my daughter behind. But if we could both go, take a kind of extended vacation, yes, I would strongly consider it.
"Can you imagine looking at the Earth from space? That's what I'd want to do. I think if everyone could do that, it would really put into perspective our place in the universe - and maybe even make us behave a little more humbly."