Going to Space Camp with The Mars Generation

Contributed by
Jun 8, 2017

Who are the Mars Generation? They’re the high school kids who will likely compose the group of the first astronauts to land on Mars. And in the Netflix documentary The Mars Generation, directed by Michael Barnett, viewers get a sneak peek at some of the names and faces that are intent on making that journey one day.

So who are these teenagers? What do they look like? What impressions can we get from them from this short but interesting film?

They are driven. They are smart. They are capable. Their passion for space is inspiring. Each of these kids has such a drive to learn, to build, to create. Many of them want to be astronauts, but it's refreshing how grounded and knowledgable these kids are — some want to be aerospace engineers, building the rockets that will take us to Mars. Others want to be politicians, shepherding NASA's budgets through difficult campaigns and protecting the organization's resources. Still others prefer to work on the ground from Mission Control. They have lofty dreams and goals, but well-informed ones. They recognize that, while the astronauts might get the glory, it's worth it to just be a part of the mission.

They might be the odd kids out at home, but here at Space Camp, they're among their own and in their element, united by a shared love for space.

The documentary follows a class of teenagers at Space Camp, based at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. Space Camp was launched in 1982, but it was first envisioned by Dr. Wernher von Braun, one of the men responsible for our modern-day space program and the builder of the gargantuan rockets that took us to the Moon. Without him and his team, it's incredibly unlikely we would have beat the Russians to the Moon.

He was also a Nazi.

Wernher von Braun (center, in the cast) surrenders to Allied forces in Germany, 1945 (Image credit: NASA)

Von Braun's troubled past is usually swept under the rug, but The Mars Generation puts it front and center, on full display for readers to listen and learn. The documentary doesn't judge, but this is a fact of von Braun's (and his German team's) life, and it does not serve us well to try to cover it up and pretend it doesn't exist. The fact is, after World War II, the United States was much more interested in Von Braun's rocket technology than his crimes as a member of the SS who designed the V2 rockets that had devastated London. We were willing to forgive anything to keep his technology out of Russian hands.

It's a fact that should make any space fan uncomfortable, but it shouldn't be hidden, especially given current events in America. I'm impressed that this documentary, which was filmed on location at an organization that considers Wernher von Braun its founder, was so frank. It was refreshing.

The film juxtaposes the history of our space program against the passion and zeal of these kids aiming to be part of the Mars missions. They learn all kinds of skills, from budgeting to survival training in the event of a water landing to rocket building — the range of education is impressive. The range of races, genders and ethnicities? Less so. While The Mars Generation does focus on a male student of color and a few female camp attendees, the crowd shots of the Space Camp attendees are jarring. It's the mostly white male audience you'd expect, which isn't representative of who will be going to or working on a Mars mission.

It makes sense — after all, Space Camp doesn't come cheap, and we're still working on increasing STEM awareness opportunities for young women and teens of color. But by focusing on access to programs like Space Camp for these underrepresented groups, we can increase their numbers in STEM fields. I want the first group of astronauts going to Mars to represent the America I live in — people of different races, ethnicities and genders.

Notable scientists, engineers and science communicators such as Michio Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Bobak Ferdowski and Jeffrey Kluger discuss the history of our space program (including their disappointment with the Space Shuttle — as Tyson says in the film, it was "boldly going where hundreds have gone before," into low Earth orbit). The film also reviews one of the proudest -- and most underrated -- achievements of NASA: its unmanned missions. However, they're no replacement for manned missions — as Ferdowski, flight director for the Mars Curiosity Rover, says, "What Curiosity has done in three years, humans can do in a week." There's no substitute for an actual human presence on Mars.

We're going to Mars. We don't know who will get there first or how it will happen, but in the next two decades, we'll see a group of humans land on the red planet. And it's possible that one of these kids attending Space Camp, dreaming of space, will be one of the people to do it. Perhaps that person will be Abigail Harrison (also known as Astronaut Abby), who has been speaking publicly since the age of 11 about her goal of being the first human to set foot on Mars. Considering her myriad accomplishments, she's well on her way. She says, "I hope my generation will be defined by Mars. I can't think of a better thing to be defined by."

I hope so too. Now let's get ourselves to Mars.