‘Mars’ Lifts Off Tonight on Nat Geo: Astronaut Compares Accuracy to ‘The Martian,’ ‘Interstellar’

John Grunsfeld tells TheWrap how we can get to red planet in just a few weeks

The six-person crew on the Daedalus. The global event series MARS premieres on the National Geographic Channel in November 2016. (photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Robert Viglasky)

John Grunsfeld has spent nearly two months in outer space, which makes him pretty darn qualified to break down “Armageddon,” we’d say.

His extensive resume also impressed the National Geographic channel, which is why producers asked Grunsfeld to be one of their on-camera “big thinkers” for scripted-documentary hybrid series, “Mars,” which launches tonight. The debut officially kicks off Nat Geo’s rebrand, which is encased in spirit by new tagline, “Further,” and aims to increase the cable network’s premium content count.

TheWrap welcomed the physicist, who is currently on hiatus as NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, aboard our rocket to break down the television show, and to compare its accuracy with some big blockbusters. For starters, is the Nat Geo show’s utilized 7-month timeframe to get from Earth to Mars in its 2033 setting accurate?

It is, based on our current chemical propulsion science, Grunsfeld said. However, once we can safely harness nuclear physics, we could theoretically hit our nearest neighbor in a “couple of weeks.” Until then, we’d just blow up trying.

Unfortunately, that innovation will probably take another 20-30 more years of serious dedication, our spaceman said. That’s why the TV show set 17 years in the future went with the timetable we’ve currently got.

Makes sense — but how have others handled it?

“The Martian’s” astronauts needed 234 days to get to Mars, utilizing the Hohmann transfer — so, that was about right. Other key plot points were not as up to snuff, however.

“Even though Ridley Scott is one of my huge heroes, I grimaced constantly at the inaccuracies,” Grunsfeld told us of the movie version.

For starters, the atmosphere on Mars is so thin that one would “barely feel” a 200 mile-per-hour wind, the smart guy said. “[Author] Andy Weir couldn’t have gone on Wikipedia to get this right?” Grunsfeld asked of the book, which he read first.

Another beef was more food-based than physics-based. Remember how Mark Watney saved a potato for Thanksgiving? Grunsfeld is far more of a yams-and-sweet-potatoes guy for turkey day, he said. “Then I would have been fine with the whole thing,” the MIT grad quipped.

Space humor.

While Grunsfeld was ultimately able to put his experience aside and enjoy the human story of “The Martian,” other films got higher marks right off the bat from the man who’s manned five space shuttle flights.

He praised Stanley Kubrick for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” for starters, calling the rover scenes “phenomenal” and the moon scenes “very realistic.” Of course, no one would ever actually go to Jupiter because of its radiation, Grunsfeld pointed out, though Saturn’s cool. Clearly, he’s grading on a curve there, considering that movie was released in 1968.

What about “Interstellar”? “They worked very hard to make the physics real,” he said.

Not bad praise coming from an actual astrophysicist.

Even “Space Cowboys” and “Armageddon” earned solid marks from Grunsfeld for what they are, which are certainly not science-based filmmaking. (Except for killer asteroids, those are real, he said.)

“Those are fun movies, they don’t have to be accurate,” Grunsfeld allowed.

Either way, none of those prior explorations contain as many of what he calls “teachable moments” as “Mars” does — but that’s because a big part of “Mars” is to legitimately educate. Of course, it also aims to entertain.

Will the mission succeed or blow up after launch? Find out tonight when “Mars” debuts on the National Geographic Channel at 9/8c.