Mars calling: the making of Transmissions From Colony One

John W. Richter on a personal space odyssey

Ericka Meaghan Kilgore 20 May 2014

Out there: missives from a mission

I hate to sound like a pessimist here, but a threat or catastrophic event may unfortunately be what finally gets us to Mars

Finally, we live in a time when actual scientific advancements have begun to keep pace with the imaginative landscapes of fiction. The fiction narratives that were once taken at face value must now be poked, prodded, and challenged – and only the most worthy stories meet the approval of the viewer’s growing demand for realism and scientific accuracy. From the success of Gravity, to the popularity of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, to the anticipation surrounding Christopher Nolan’s upcoming project Interstellar, when it comes to science in fiction, one thing is clear: viewers are engaging more with the science, and less with the fiction.

Emerging in the wake of this trend is John W. Richter’s radio/podcast drama Transmissions From Colony One, a found-footage style radio play that chronicles the first manned mission to the surface of Mars. Season One premiered on July 4, 2013 – the anniversary of the landing of the first Mars Rover, the Pathfinder/Sojourner – and the podcast has since garnered the attention of both casual astronomers and experts from NASA, ESA, SpaceX, MarsOne, The Mars Initiative, and JAXA. TFCO is set in the year 2057, when the fictional global space-faring coalition known as the “Mars Exploration, Colonization and Terraformation Initiative (MECTI-1)” has launched a sixteen-person crew on a one-way trip to Mars – the first of thousands of planned missions intended to create permanent human settlements on the Red Planet. But immediately upon landing, complications arise that threaten the long-term survival of not only the mission, but also the crew.

Inspired by the growing interest surrounding the present-day Mars exploration, writer/producer/director John W. Richter began TFCO in 2010 with the intention of addressing one recurring question posed by international space agencies – why not go to Mars? At the time, astronomers were discussing the possibility of sending humans on a one-way trip in order to drastically cut the costs, and Richter couldn’t resist tapping into the well of drama behind the thought of anyone consciously deciding to abandon their lives and loved ones on Earth for the advancement of science – and, of course, for adventure. Richter thus sought to tell the fictional tale of these pioneers, and as a life-long astronomy enthusiast, he aimed to remain as scientifically accurate as possible. This second caveat put him through years of research in which he directly corresponded with NASA and space exploration scientists before he could even begin writing (and re-writing. . . and re-writing) what eventually became the groundbreaking original podcast, Transmissions From Colony One.

In order to make TFCO believable, Richer made a considerable effort to tackle challenges with portraying a human mission to Mars realistically. For example, how would MECTI-1’s ship land on Mars carrying its 16-passenger crew and enough rations for months on end? Refusing to glaze over the details, Richter created MECTI-1’s Manned Mars Landing/Habitation Vehicle – dubbed the “Wasp”—which features heat shields, parachutes, thruster engines, and other tried-and-true technologies used on space vehicles today. Listeners will hear the crew of the Wasp discussing the sky-crane, and even the hypercone, a state-of-the-art technology still in development at Vorticity, Ltd. To stop this massive spacecraft from plummeting headfirst through the thin atmosphere of Mars, Richter had to get a little inventive. It was his friend and colleague Dustin Weiskopf who devised the idea of a large electromagnet that the Wasp would lower to a docking station at the landing site. The ship, then, reels to the surface using a thick network of graphene tethers.

Many other technical dilemmas soon arose that had to be resolved in order to create the fully fleshed universe of TFCO: How could the transit time (and the concomitant cosmic ray exposure) be minimized? How could astronauts surviving on the surface sustain themselves? How could the landing materials be dropped beforehand and survive the fall and the atmosphere of Mars? What does the wind, thunder, or movement of people on Mars even sound like? And what about the emotional question driving the story of TFCO – why would anyone launch themselves off of their own planet at great personal risk just to live out the rest of their days on the frozen desolation of Mars?

To find out the answers to these questions and many more, you’ll have to catch up on the first season of TFCO – preferably before Season Two crashes into orbit later this month on Friday, May 30. In the meantime, I met with John W. Richter to get answers to a few questions of my own about the podcast and his own thoughts on the present and future state of manned space exploration.

Was there a particular instance when you first fell in love with astronomy?

My first time watching Cosmos as a teenager was definitely a factor. I grew up on a farm in the country, away from all light pollution, and wanting to know what exactly I was looking at really piqued my curiosity at an early age. Standing under a clear night sky is still one of the most humbling experiences in life, and I try to savor those moments as often as possible. My first time looking through a telescope and watching Ganymede orbit behind Jupiter was another significant moment – the experience of watching planets and moons that weren't photos or some kind of film or video really left a mark. It's one thing to see photos, it's another thing entirely to watch nature several millions of miles away in action.

What are your thoughts on the likelihood of manned missions to Mars or other celestial bodies in the near future?

I wholeheartedly believe humanity will set foot on Mars in the future. It's a given. Mars exploration is growing exponentially in popularity every year. With Opportunity, Curiosity, the MRO, MAVEN, etc., and organizations like MarsOne, The Mars Initiative and the Mars Society continuing to grow in popularity, manned missions to Mars will happen – it’s only a question of when. Whether technological innovations are the cause, climate change is the cause, or even some kind of unpredictable outer space calamity befalling us, before long something will force our hand to make the move. I hate to sound like a pessimist here, but a threat or catastrophic event may unfortunately be what finally gets us to Mars.

As far as other objects in the solar systems, we probably won’t be visiting those with manned missions until after we’ve achieved a success on Mars. Asteroids may very well be visited by human crews before Mars as a means of capture for cosmic radiation shielding during transit, but others such as Mercury, Venus, Europa, Titan, Enceladus, et cetera, have substantially greater risks and challenges than our red neighbor when it comes to human survival. Perhaps in time.

For you, is Transmissions From Colony One wishful thinking or a prediction of things to come?

I am not entirely sure I would call Transmissions From Colony One “wishful thinking,” as many things throughout the series go so wrong! All joking aside, I think TFCO does probably come down more towards the “wishful thinking” side of the spectrum. However, as stated earlier, the day is coming when mankind does not only land on Mars, but begins populating it. The imbalance between the growing human population on Earth and consumption of natural resources increases daily, and the day will eventually come when heads of state and heads of international space agencies sit down and ponder contingency plans for humanity's survival. When that day comes, I assure you that colonizing other worlds in our solar system will cease to be a science fiction trope and begin to be a reality. Transmissions From Colony One shares both points of view; currently it is wishful thinking that humanity will become a spacefaring people, but in time we will get there. It may not be exactly the same process as MECTI-1, but this general idea of humans colonizing and terraforming Mars is something I strongly feel is in our future.

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Do you have more questions for the creators or talent of Transmissions From Colony One? You can connect with them on Facebook, Google+, or Twitter. Season Two of Transmissions From Colony Oneis currently in post-production and will premiere Friday, May 30, 2014, on their website, iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcatcher. You can check out the new trailer for Season Two now.