We're heading back to Mars now, with science and soaps and human nature


The first season of "Mars" was impressive, an ambitious mixture of sci-fi drama and sci-fact documentary. Now the second season starts Monday (Nov. 12), with expanded drama. The international expedition has been on the planet for five years and faces the intrusion of a private company. It's an interesting blend of art and science, so this story, which I sent to papers, includes actors and an astronaut:

By Mike Hughes

As “Mars”
returns to our TV screens, opposite worlds co-exist.

This is serious
science and fun drama; a fictional story about life on Mars is
punctuated by documentary scenes. “The first season was this great,
creative adventure,” said producer Ron Howard.

And the second
season? “It's more and more psychological,” he said.

Some would say it
has more soap opera ... which isn't such a bad thing. “There's a
reason soaps are so popular,” said actor Esai Morales.

He plays the CEO of
Lukrum Industries, now pushing to make a profit off Mars. The Lukrum
team has landed there, with its commander (Jeff Hephner) ready to
seize opportunities.

It's a story that
includes rage, romance, break-ups, pregnancy and more. “You're
gonna send humans to Mars,” Hephner said. “You're not sending
robots.”

This link between
arts and astronauts is logical to many people ... including Mae
Jamison, one of the show's consultants. She's a scientist, a doctor
and a retired astronaut, but she also likes performing.

“I did a lot of
dancing,” Jamison said. “I choreographed dance productions in
college.”

She pondered both
careers, before her mother settled the matter: “She said you can
still dance when you're a doctor, but you can't necessarily doctor if
you're a dancer.”

Her mother had
always been an inspiration, Jemison said. “She went back to school
and became a teacher; I was always so proud of my mother.”

Jemison followed
that educational emphasis. She was 3 when the family moved from
Alabama to Chicago, where her dad was a maintenance supervisor and
her mom taught elementary-school English and math. She was 16 when
she went to Stanford (majoring in chemical engineering while also
dancing and doing Afro-American studies) and 20 when she started
medical school at Cornell.

Jemison was a
general practitioner in Los Angeles and with the Peace Corps in
Sierra Leone, but the goal was always to be an astronaut. “My
application was in when the Challenger changed everything.”

That 1986 disaster
halted the space program. But a year later, Jemison was accepted; in
1992, aboard the Endeavour, she became the first African-American
woman in space.

The time after the
Challenger was one of many slowdowns, delaying space progress. “How
come I didn't go to Mars?” said Jemison, 62. “It's all about
communication .... We haven't told the story well.”

Hephner is happy to
tell that story and be on a fictional Mars.

When the Challenger
exploded he was a 4th-grader in small-town Michigan, where
his dad was a gym teacher and his mom was a nurse. But he also
sampled the wider world. “I went on an exchange program to France
(for two months) when I was 12. I'd never been on a plane before.”

Basketball also
expanded his world. He was a high school star and a small-college
starter (a 6-foot-2 guard), who then became an actor. Roles have
ranged from heroes (“The Water is Wide,” “Agent X,” “Chicago
Fire”) to the philandering politician in Kelsey Grammer's “Boss.”

It's been a mobile
life, joined by his wife and their children, ages 11, 9 and 8. “It's
been the five of us, experiencing a lot of things ... They're very
adaptable.”

That's a trait that
astronauts also need, Jemison said. “They're decisive.”

They need to
contrive quick solutions to problems no one has seen before. And now
– in the second “Mars” season – they face some personal
problems.

-- “Mars,” 9
p.m. Mondays, National Geographic, rerunning at midnight.

-- Season-opener is
Nov. 12, preceded at 8 p.m. by an “Inside SpaceX” special; opener
also reruns at11 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17.