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For author who inspired NatGeo's 'Mars,' it's the red planet or bust

One  thing Stephen Petranek wants people to know about Mars, the Ron Howard-produced miniseries premiering Monday on National Geographic Channel, is that it's not science fiction. It's science.

Yes, there are actors , and the not-so-smooth arrival of six men and women on Mars, envisioned as taking place in 2033, hasn't happened yet. But to Petranek,  a veteran journalist whose book, How We'll Live on Mars, inspired the drama-documentary hybrid, the drama's just a  vehicle for delivering a stark message:

Humans need an exit strategy if the species is to survive, and for now, Mars is our best shot.

"In this day and age, apparently, you can no longer have a talking heads documentary that's successful, if you want to gain a large audience," he said in an interview this past summer in Beverly Hills. "I would like to have millions and millions of people understand that we're going to Mars and we're going much sooner than they think."

Because, he said, we have no choice.

"It is a 100 percent probability that we will be hit by an asteroid at least as large as the one that killed 75 percent of all life 65 million years ago, that took out the dinosaurs and basically any animal bigger than a rabbit," Petranek said.

"Earth is threatened by many, many catastrophes, including such simple things as nuclear war."

Petranek's not simply looking to NASA to save us, and neither is Mars, which envisions the world's space agencies working with private industry to put humans on the red planet. He is, however, counting on Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, whose goal is the colonization of Mars.

Musk, who appears in the series, which veers between the present and the future, is "in the category of [Thomas] Edison and [Henry] Ford and Steve Jobs, only multiplied by 10," Petranek said.

"He formed SpaceX for one reason, and one reason only, and he said it over and over, and that is to create a self-sustaining population on Mars of humans because the Earth is threatened by many, many kinds of disasters and possible catastrophes."

And if Musk were to, God forbid,  crash his Tesla before the mission's accomplished?

Musk "is unquestionably the driving force behind SpaceX. But if for some reason, SpaceX falters, there are dozens of companies that are in the wings," Petranek said, noting that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are "all heavily invested in an asteroid mining company."

Space offers so much opportunity "that business is driving toward it like crazy," he said. "I think a private company is likely to get to Mars, and put humans on Mars, before anybody else does...NASA is keenly aware that SpaceX wants to get to Mars. And they want them to be successful," and not just because the space agency can't afford to go it alone.

"NASA is very, very good at life-support systems and keeping people alive once they get to Mars. They've invented all the machinery that they need to make that happen. SpaceX is not good at that. SpaceX is good at building rockets. NASA's terrible at building rockets. So what you want to see happen is these two begin to cooperate and you see public-private organization and effort formed that gets people to Mars. And in fact, that's exactly what you're seeing in this series."

The show, which stars Ben Cotton, Jihae, Sammi Rotibi, Clementine Poidatz, Alberto Ammann, and Anamaria Marinca as the crew of the Daedalus, doesn't skimp on the hardships facing the first colonists, and much of the drama of the first two episodes involves unexpected challenges that threaten their survival.

Petranek, whose book talks about eventually terraforming Mars to resemble the very Earth he expects we may eventually abandon, isn't sugarcoating things, either.

"Mars is practice, for getting out of our solar system and going somewhere else where there's a more habitable planet. But Mars is a huge, ugly, weird planet. And it's not like we're going to paradise, and we're going to screw it up," he said.

"Here's the deal: There is no other place to go. In a billion years, our sun is going to start enlarging and dying. When it does, it's going to kill everything on Earth. It's either going to throw Earth out of orbit, or it's going to radiate everything on Earth. Humans come to an end. If you want to be part of a species that continues, you must become a space-faring species."

Mars, 9 p.m. Monday, National Geographic Channel