At 97 minutes, The Mars Generation is a densely packed documentary about the history and projected future of American space travel. It is well structured, as it initially introduces you to several participants in the Space Camp program in Huntsville, Alabama, then blends in the historical record and current state of the space program as a parallel for each topic. For instance, the campers build and program robots while Bobak Ferdowsi talks about his decade as a systems engineer on the Mars Curiosity mission.
Unless you are already well versed in NASA knowledge – not just space, but the political and financial turning of the tides, the timeline of innovations, and the logistics of training, you will learn something new by watching this documentary. I had a vague notion of the link between NASA and the Nazis, but this documentary laid out the inextricable link between the two with an extended segment about Wernher von Braun, the SS soldier and chief weapons maker to Hitler, turned American hero and architect of the space program. He even had a Disney special where he talked about space that 42 million Americans watched with rapt attention.
Informing the public isn’t Generation‘s only goal, there’s also a pretty aggressive push to sell space exploration as an endeavor worthy of devoting resources to. It starts off pretty smoothly with the young folks insisting that Mars is cool every few seconds. Raj, one of the featured teens declares, “Having a man—or woman walk on Mars is just the most badass thought in my mind.” There is a segment toward the middle-end that talks about all the ways NASA has enhanced our economy and everyday lives from MRIs and CAT scans to the tiny cameras on our cellphones. By the end of the documentary, it’s all extinction level events and climate change leading to the end of humanity if we stay confined to one planet. Way to ramp up the intensity of your sales pitch, show!
There is no shortage of adult talking heads; ubiquitous Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, senior writer for Time magazine Jeffrey Kluger, and astrophysicist Michio Kaku among others, show up to give context. However, the teens that make up the titular generation give this film the axis on which to spin.
This is the first time Space Camp has unveiled “The Mars Mission” for the campers. Seventeen-year-old Kyle explains that the mission had been in R&D for a while and he’s exhilarated that they will get to partake in this simulation. Later, Colin, also 17, explains that the planet Mars is entirely populated by robots and says it’s interesting to think about. I agree. It also seems like fodder for a pretty good sci-fi thriller if put in the right hands.
When we meet 16-year-old Victoria, she tells us it’s her third year at Space Camp. She applied for a scholarship this year, which included a science experiment and three letters of recommendation. Later in the film, she speaks about the difficulties she’s had at school, being bullied since the 3rd grade. Quite literally, Space Camp is a refuge, the perfect place for kids to relax and let their nerd flags fly, secure in the knowledge that every young person around them shares their immense curiosity and interest in space exploration. The film could have done with a few more segments like this.
Other notable moments were the celebrations when teams would succeed at a given task. In one such celebration, Raj declares “Wow, that was so ratchet!” after a successful rocket test. Well, that was certainly a unique application of that expression.
As people have noted, The Mars Generation is purposefully monochromatic. With the exception of Raj, there are no other children of color featured heavily. Sixteen-year-old Van, is Black and if you blink you’ll miss him both times he shows up on the screen.
It’s hard not to side-eye a documentary that reverently speaks about a Nazi known for his brutality while not making note of the essential mind of Katherine Johnson, which made it possible to land a man on the moon. It chills me to the bone that the space program started as the redemption arc for a genocidal scientist and due to systemic educational disparity and pointed recruitment efforts, its future shares his vision of who is worthy to colonize Mars and beyond. It’s not enough to say “We couldn’t find any!” No one is buying that excuse anymore.
The adult talking heads were a pretty diverse lot, at least, but they represent space travel present, not the future. My eyes lit up at the 1:19 mark when finally a Black woman came into view. Lauren Lyons, a Space X Mission Integration Engineer, started to talk about what it would take to build a civilization on Mars. Her segment was informative, hopeful, and way too short.
Overall, this documentary is worth watching. If you are a beleaguered school teacher looking for a documentary to eat up a couple class periods as you head into the home stretch of the school year, this would fit the bill. However, I would strongly encourage you to have ancillary materials to combat the white, nationalist gaze and some discussion questions that probe students’ understanding of ethics in science at the ready.