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Case Number 20981: Small Claims Court

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Can We Make It To Mars?

PBS // 2011 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 26th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Clark Douglas demands that you take him to your leader.

The Charge

"These are acceptable risks."

The Case

Since 1974, the PBS program Nova has been educating and enlightening viewers on a wide variety of scientific subjects. Alas, viewers were also forced to deal with the arduous task of watching a documentary on a single subject for an entire hour. Undeterred by today's attention-deficit audiences, PBS proceeded to produce Nova scienceNOW, which takes subjects explored on Nova and distills them into easily-digestible 10-12 minute segments. Though a few of the program's quirks give it an air of superficiality at times (host Neil DeGrasse Tyson's very forced wacky faces and some of the goofy sound effects in particular), Nova scienceNOW provides a generous dose of substantial "edu" with its silly "tainment."

Though the newsmagazine approach occasionally makes Can We Make it to Mars? seem a tad schizophrenic, the whole affair actually is working in concert to explore the question posed by the title. The most interesting segments are those which deal with that question directly; offering a look at the many hurdles posed by a trip to the red planet. So, can we make it to Mars? The answer seems to be: yeah, maybe, but at a high price.

One threat after another is explored in harrowing detail, and less-than-proven solutions are tentatively offered in response. Meteorites that could tear through the ship? They'll just cover the ship with a padding that will hopefully absorb the impact of any flying space debris. Potential bone loss and body deconstruction that could occur due to living in space for an extended period? Complex exercise machines along the lines of the ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey would need to be developed and put onboard. Other problems, like cosmic rays and the radiation levels on Mars, simply can't be avoided.

Other segments feel geared at younger, less scientifically-inclined audiences. What do astronauts eat in space? Could you develop meals that would last for 5 or 10 years? How do astronauts go to the bathroom? What would happen to your body if you were to fly into space without a space suit? These moments are engaging enough, but lack the fascination of the nuts-and-bolts examination of whether a trip to Mars is something that could be achieved.

Here's the amazing thing about this special: every astronaut and scientist interviewed would gladly sacrifice his or her life for the opportunity to visit Mars. Yes, they realize that the trip there would be extremely dangerous, and that once they arrived they would be exposed to severe radiation that could eventually prove fatal. Even so, the chance to take part in what one man terms, "the next step forward in human evolution" is an opportunity worth dying for. To visit Mars would be to see and experience something no human being had seen or experienced before. In the end, wouldn't that be worth more than any long yet ordinary life here on earth? Those who have devoted their lives to developing a greater understanding of the universe think so, at least. For them, there is no worthier suicide mission. It's all capped off by a brief sermon from Tyson (despite his goofy mugging for the camera, he's truly one of the rock stars of the science world), who finds an elegant way to say, "Yeah, I more or less agree."

The anamorphic widescreen DVD transfer is solid enough, offering strong detail and depth. Most of the archival footage employed is recent, high-quality stuff, too, so no real caveats to make in that area. Less of a talking-heads piece than many television documentaries, Can We Make it to Mars? only occasionally resorts to standard-issue interviews. Audio is solid as well, though there's very little that's going to overwhelm your speaker system. There are no extras of any sort on the disc.

While perhaps not a great, in-depth exploration of the hazards of space travel, Nova scienceNOW: Can We Make it to Mars? is an interesting and occasionally fascinating hour of viewing. It's worth a look.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 84

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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