The first time America set its cap for another world, there was no room for kids. That other world was the moon, the goal was announced in 1961 and the deadline for a landing was before 1970. No 1961 schoolchild would be remotely old enough to go before that date arrived.
Today things are different. America is talking anew about returning to the moon, yes, but the big goal is Mars. That’s no three-day, quarter-of-a-million mile hop like a translunar journey is. It’s an eight month trip to a world that averages 139 million miles (225 million km) away. And the complexity of such a mission means that there’s no quick, end-of-the-decade deadline. The first trips to Mars won’t happen until sometime in the 2030s. That, in turn, means that this time, the kids are very much in the game. Neil Armstrong was 38 years old when he became the first man on the moon; today’s teens will be right in that range when the Mars ships start flying.
The tale of some of those potential Mars settlers is now being told in the new film The Mars Generation, which will be released on Netflix on May 5. A Time Inc. production, directed by Michael Barnett and produced by Austin Francalancia and Clare Tucker, The Mars Generation had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
The film, which follows a group of teens at NASA’s space camp as they learn about the science and technology behind a trip to Mars, also features commentary by science popularizers Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku; astronaut Suni Williams, and Andrew Weir, author of The Martian. But it’s not the grownups who make the film; none of them, with the exception of Williams, has any shot at all of walking on Mars. It’s the kids, who can dream that dream, who are the deserved focus of the narrative.
So we see them building rockets of their own design and learning the hard truth that that in the world of ballistics, a lot of stuff crashes before a few things fly true. We seem them building robot rovers that can operate autonomously, spacecraft shielding that can resist the heat of reentry, payload compartments that can land an egg—uncracked—on the ground. Most important, we see them running flight simulations—some routine, some emergencies—and learning a little bit about the real-time, life-and-death troubleshooting that space flight involves.
For many of the kids, surely, space camp will be the dalliance of a summer or two, before they go on to decidedly more-terrestrial professions. For some, space will become a career, but one they’ll pursue on the ground, in labs and factories, sending other men and women aloft. But for a few—the ones with a little glint of steel and a lot of initiative—the goal will be to fly the ships.
The greatest explorers do sometimes drop hints in childhood of what they’ll one day become. Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8—the first manned mission to the moon—spent much of his youth designing and building model airplanes. Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, went Borman one better, building solid and liquid-fueled rockets.
Somewhere in the world, at this very moment—sitting in a math class, hunched over homework, playing a little after-school soccer—is the girl or boy who will be the first person on Mars. The children in The Mars Generation may or may not include that historic figure, but they provide an awfully good sense of the kind of talent and work it will take to fill that epochal role.