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Nat Geo’s ‘Mars’: Why astronaut Mae Jemison is all in on Season 2’s high-stakes drama

The first African American woman in space used her background in medicine and engineering — and dance — to help writers and actors tell a story she hopes will inspire viewers.

From left: Alberto Ammann, Sammi Rotibi, Jihae, and Gunnar Cauthery in a scene from the second season of National Geographic Channel's "Mars" ()
From left: Alberto Ammann, Sammi Rotibi, Jihae, and Gunnar Cauthery in a scene from the second season of National Geographic Channel's "Mars" ()Read moreDusan Martincek/National Geographic

One day last summer, I flew in to Los Angeles for a conference of television critics and was picked up at the airport by a Lyft driver who'd grown up in nearby Inglewood and wanted to tell me all about it.

Until he started driving for a living, his whole world had been Inglewood. He hadn't realized, he said, how close "Hollywood" was to his front door. His one brush with stardom had been getting to see the ride of the space shuttle Endeavour as the decommissioned behemoth was driven through the streets of his neighborhood in 2012 on its way to the California Science Center. Six years later, I had goose bumps as he described it.

What he didn't know until I told him was that I was scheduled the next day to interview Mae C. Jemison, the physician and engineer who became the first African American woman in space while orbiting the Earth on, yes, the Endeavour in September 1992.

Nothing about this story surprised Jemison. The former NASA astronaut took a job as a science adviser on the second season of National Geographic Channel's Mars because, she said, she wants humans to get to the Red Planet, and beyond, and believes storytelling can help that happen.

To her, the driver's story demonstrated that "space is much more connected with everyone than we give it credit for. And that people want us to do big things," Jemison said, adding that she'd been at the decommissioning of the shuttle, which she likened to "an old friend," and later celebrated the 25th anniversary of her trip to space with a 2017 party "under the Endeavour at the museum."

Jemison's no stranger to TV cameras. She was prominently featured as one of the astronauts offering insights in Nat Geo's Will Smith-hosted documentary series One Strange Rock this year, and her television appearances include a guest-starring role in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

You won't see her on screen, though, in Mars. As the Ron Howard- and Brian Grazer-produced drama/documentary hybrid begins a six-episode season on Monday, Nov. 12, the scripted portion of the show has jumped ahead five years, to 2042, when the considerably enlarged colony gets its first neighbors, a crew sent by a powerful private company whose interests don't necessarily align with those of the original settlers.

Some of the plot lines wouldn't be out of place on Grey's Anatomy — if, that is, the ABC medical drama took place 140 million miles or so from Seattle's Space Needle. There's a high-stakes pregnancy, a quarantine situation, and one excruciating challenge after another for mission commander Hana Seung (Jihae).

Meanwhile, in the talking-heads portion of the show, interviewees Nat Geo calls "Big Thinkers" — who range from environmental activists to SpaceX founder Elon Musk and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — discuss the tug-of-war between science and commerce that's at the heart of some major issues on our own planet and that will likely factor into any colonization of Mars.

Jemison, leader of the 100 Year Starship project, whose aim is "to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years," said she'd been approached about being one of the Big Thinkers for the show's first season but decided against it.

>>READ MORE: For author who inspired Nat Geo's 'Mars,' it's red planet or bust

"I said, 'You know what? I'm tired of doing interviews. I would love to be inside, and help determine how the story goes,' " Jemison said. "I want something that you can tell these incredible stories and get the science right. And because people spend so much time watching these things … they learn."

After she was invited to be a science adviser for the new  season, "I went to Budapest, and I did a space boot camp for the cast. They were really good sports, too." she said.

"My background, yes, is in medicine, it's in engineering. I also did a lot of political stuff, and I was a dancer, and I did a lot of performing arts. So in some ways, I had some knowledge base to be able to contribute from that perspective in storytelling," Jemison said.

With the actors, she wanted, for instance, to deal with movement. "What does it feel like to adapt and adjust? What does it feel like to be in weightlessness and all of a sudden be in a gravity environment?" Jemison said. "I had to find ways to get them that feeling, so we had them in pools and walking around with weights and all kinds of things to just sort of say, when you're doing this on set … you're not going to move as rapidly."

She also taught them some of the things an astronaut would know so that "if you're talking about these things, you can feel authoritative," she said. She worked with actress Clémentine Poidatz, who plays mission physician Amelie Durand, on the physical aspects of certain medical procedures.

Beyond that, she said, she helped the writers, "in terms of how do you get this injury such that it can kill you," or advising on how damage might be done to a ship. "It stretched my imagination," Jemison said. "What was really refreshing and rewarding is that [the writers] took it to heart" and made changes based on her advice.

Growing up on Chicago's South Side in the 1960s, Jemison was the child "6, 7 years old, running around telling people why it's important that we be involved in space exploration." It's the same excitement I remember as a child in the years leading up to the moon landing, but Jemison, just as Damien Chazelle's First Man did, challenged my impression that people were more idealistic about the space program then.

"In some communities, they felt that it was about militarization. There were even songs like Gil Scott-Heron's 'Whitey on the Moon.' It wasn't all like pie in the sky. It depends on where you were looking from, right?" she said. "And there was always this thing, 'We can get a man on the moon, but we can't do X, Y, and Z.' "

It's all about how you tell the story, she said.

"What I'm so excited about Mars, this series, is because it tells a story well. Why we're on Mars. It captivates, brings people into the drama. I didn't get to go to Mars when I was an astronaut not because there was an inherent weak technological capacity, but because the public wasn't committed. They weren't kept involved in space exploration. That's because we didn't tell the story well," she said.

"Today, you say people aren't as excited about it sometimes. Think about it: People walk around with their smartphones and they ask for directions and they forget that it's global positioning satellite systems that give them directions. And they say space hasn't done anything. We have weather satellites. You can go on and on and on, but that's because a lot of us in the space industry haven't told the story well, and we haven't kept people involved."

A show like Mars "tells the story in such a way where people are able to access the science and the adventure, but at the same time, they don't even know they're doing that because they're captivated by the story."

Watch this

Mars. 9 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, National Geographic Channel.