The Science Behind Hulu’s The First, Starring Sean Penn

Beau Willimon (House of Cards) created Hulu's The First with real science and technology in mind.

The First Brings the Real Science of Space Travel to the Small Screen

Hulu’s The First chronicles humankind’s inaugural mission to Mars. The show itself is a pioneer in its own right. While many predecessors have explored the interstellar before (see Star Trek’s many iterations, Battlestar Galactica,  even certain episodes of Black Mirror and Dr. Who), The First is (quite literally) the first to tackle the technical and bureaucratic challenges of preparing for interstellar flight prior to take-off. The Hulu show, currently in it’s first season, confronts the narrative quandaries of fictionalizing how our species would approach such a mission, while also taking on the production predicaments of faking futuristic technology.

Mission to Mars: ETA 2030

NASA has announced a plan to send a crewed mission to Mars as early as 2030. This group would be armed wwith innovations like creating oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide in the works. Other fictionalized accounts of early Mars missions such as The Martian take deep dives into the science that would enable a Mars mission, from the prowess required to power a shuttle on the long journey, to the technology necessary to support human life on the planet. But how much of The First’s technology is actually on the horizon? Quite a lot, according to NASA’s former Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) director Charles Elachi. Elachi works as a science consultant on The First. From more advanced iterations of the recognizable self-driving vehicles and voice command tech featured on the show, to the robust rockets that bear close resemblance to NASA’s own upcoming Space Launch system, Elachi told Space.com that while the tech featured on the show may push “the limit of what can be done in the future, but everything done in the film, I think, can happen in the next decade, technically speaking.”

The Science Behind The First‘s Structure

An interesting narrative choice by creator Beau Willimon was to have each episode of the show take place over this course of a few months. This choice was made to keep in place the real-time constraints on Mars missions. Willion told Slashfilm.com, “you can only do launches to Mars every 26 months…We see in the first episode a launch that goes awry which means that you can’t do the next launch for 26 months. If that’s where you want to end the first season, you’ve got to cover 26 months of story in between the two.”

Timing and Technology

But what about the filmmaking challenges of depicting the preparations for space flight in the near future? Cinematographer Adam Stone told audience at the ATX TV festival in Austin, TX,  “I want to set up this dialectic between the lush, vibrant, teeming Earth and the cold, desolate look of Mars.” Doing so required a production budget of $54.6 million dollars. Production designers consulted with NASA officials on interstellar machinery in terms of scale, from engines to batteries, what is show on The First matches approximately the scale of what would be required for a real Mars mission. “I’m really impressed with the technical team,” says Chris Ferguson, a retired NASA astronaut, “they’re really done their homework so no one call them on the science. “The challenge of the near future is that it’s near,” says Beau Willimon. “15 years from now, the world isn’t going to look that different… you actually have to do a ton of research to justify the choices you’ve made.”

The First is not officially renewed for a second season, but the show’s so far glowing reviews indicate that more episodes of the Hulu series may be eminent, as will the challenges of creating a show that ventures into the great beyond in a time not too distant from our own.

The First was created by Beau Willimon, with cinematography by Adam Stone.

Photos and video credit courtesy of Hulu.

Read the review of the “First” inaugural episode.


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