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Gravity Probe-B illustration
The success of SpaceShipOne could allow the space-based reality TV series concept to become a reality. (credit: J. Foust)

The reality space race

Assuming that Monday’s flight of SpaceShipOne is successful, we can expect a tremendous amount of hype and hyperbole about the bright future of space tourism in the coming weeks. This will make it difficult to sort the realistic projections from the wildly speculative optimism of the “alt.space” crowd. However, here is one announcement that will likely appear in the news in the next several months: someone will announce plans for a “reality” television show where the winner of a competition will fly aboard SpaceShipOne or one of its competitors.

Such a program actually has a pretty good chance of happening, assuming that the team that proposes it has an existing track record of successful reality television programs. In fact, do not be surprised if there is a reality show space race to see which production company can get their show off the ground first. Being first will gather much publicity and ratings. Being second is boring. Few Americans can name the second astronaut to orbit the earth.

This likely success stands in stark contrast to the previous history of space-themed reality television projects. Those projects never had much hope of coming to fruition, both because of the economics of television and the economics of space, neither of which mixed very well.

Destination: Nowhere

The idea of forming a television reality show around a space flight is not new. Various proposed TV shows involving a flight aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to either the Russian Mir space station or the International Space Station have been proposed over the past four years. They all failed.

Previous soace-based reality TV projects never had much hope of coming to fruition, both because of the economics of television and the economics of space, neither of which mixed very well.

The most well-known of these proposals was “Destination: Mir” proposed in 2000 by Mark Burnett, the producer of numerous successful reality television shows, most notably “Survivor”. Burnett wanted to fly the winner of a reality show competition to the Russian space station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. NBC actually announced that the show would be on its 2001 schedule. After the Mir space station was deorbited, Burnett renamed the show “Destination: Space,” featuring a flight to the International Space Station instead. The reputed price tag for the show was $50 million. Burnett’s project never made it to television.

After that, other projects were announced. Amsterdam-based MirCorp announced plans for a show called “Ancient Astronaut,” which quickly faded into obscurity, like most of MirCorp’s other projects. The company then worked on another project known as “Celebrity Mission,” which was supposed to put N’Sync singer Lance Bass into orbit, but the Bass mission turned farcical as the singer went to Russia but was unable to pay his bills. A European project called “Space Commander” was also proposed and quickly disappeared. In fall 2002 Russia’s TV1 television channel announced that it had struck a deal to send the winner of a Russian reality TV show into space in 2003. TV1 was supposedly working with Mark Burnett on the project, but again after an initial press announcement, nothing more was heard from the network about this project. Then in July 2003 Virginia-based Space Adventures announced that it had signed a deal to purchase two seats on a Soyuz ISS mission. One option the company was exploring was a reality TV show. However, nothing more has been heard about that plan either. All of these shows would have used the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and the International Space Station.

Eventually the trade press learned a lesson and realized that just because someone had announced a space-themed reality show did not mean it was going to happen. Anybody can write a press release, but very few people can raise millions of dollars of capital to fund a television production.

A typical one-hour drama on one of the six American commercial television networks averages around $2 million an episode. Studios often lose money on the first run of a show, but recoup that cost by selling the show for syndication. The appeal of reality television is that the shows are relatively inexpensive compared to regular dramas. Reality TV shows can be produced for considerably less, perhaps around $1 million per one-hour episode. The reasons are simple: such shows have no regular cast to pay and often have a minimal writing staff. In addition, they can sometimes save on other production costs by using preexisting homes or other means to avoid expensive set construction and labor costs. The downside is that reality programs have no real syndication potential—once they air, the network might as well throw them away. After all, once someone wins the prize, the suspense is gone and nobody wants to watch it happen a second time. Compare this to shows like “Law and Order”, which are rerun endlessly on both network and cable television.

All of the previous space-themed reality shows ran into the classic problems of accessing space: cost and schedule. Even when both are excellent by space standards, they remain prohibitive for the reality show market.

In space terms, a Soyuz flight is cheap. Although the true cost of a Soyuz rocket plus spacecraft is not known, the cost of a single seat on a Soyuz mission to ISS is known. It runs around $12-15 million, which is extremely cheap by space standards. When multi-millionaire businessmen Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth flew to the ISS, the press reported that they paid an estimated $20 million each for their seats. However, according to several sources, including one involved in one of the reality show negotiations with the Russians, the actual cost for both Tito and Shuttleworth was consistent with the reported cost that European countries have paid for their seats aboard the Soyuz, around $12-15 million.

Even when both cost and schedule are excellent by space standards, they remain prohibitive for the reality show market.

The cost of this Soyuz ticket has to be added to the base production costs of a reality show. For a space show, those production costs will probably be higher than for most reality shows. Although the American dollar goes farther in Russia than in Los Angeles, any show filming in Russia or in Star City in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan will probably not be able to rely upon local talent and will have to import all of its equipment and production crews, paying both their salaries and travel and living expenses. In addition, simply maintaining the excitement of such a program might involve additional costs such as high-altitude flights in jet fighters that will add to the cost.

The end result is that any reality show using a Soyuz spacecraft will cost perhaps $1.5 to $2 million per episode to make, or perhaps twice the cost of a typical reality television show and equivalent to the cost of a typical one-hour drama, with no syndication potential to recoup production costs. The economics do not add up. Burnett’s reported $50 million “Destination: Space” project could never have worked, even at substantially lower cost. Why should a network spend $50 million on a reality TV show when it can spend a third of that amount on a different show?

Add to this the other major problem for access to space: schedule. The Soyuz has demonstrated its ability to meet its launch windows with high reliability, in part because the Russians are not as cautious about weather conditions as NASA. However, any Soyuz flight to the International Space Station has to meet the mission requirements of the ISS first. This requires the Russians to coordinate with NASA and the other ISS partners. The TV show would naturally want to show the launch live, in prime time on the U.S. east coast, which may not be possible considering the launch window requirements of flying to the space station. The production team requires a firm commitment of a launch time and date many months in advance, far earlier than the space station partners would naturally establish such dates. The ability to get a firm commitment from the Russians on this is probably not high, despite the Soyuz’s ability to launch on time.

Given these problems, it is no surprise that all of these space-themed reality projects fell apart. A better question is why so many of them were announced before those involved did even basic homework.

But the suborbital space tourism market changes everything.

SpaceShipOne, in primetime

SpaceShipOne’s designer Burt Rutan has stated that his craft is not intended to be an operational space tourism craft. The vehicle is a marvel of conservative engineering, relying upon a relatively simple hybrid rocket engine. The problem is that each engine costs on the order of $100,000 and cannot be reused. Because the vehicle carries only three passengers, each ticket to fly will be over $33,000, not including the substantial overhead costs. Although there are probably plenty of people who could afford this cost, even Rutan and his backers believe that this is not economical. SpaceShipOne will have to be replaced by something bigger and better in order to be economically successful.

For a reality television show, though, these costs are minimal. The show would of course have to pay significantly more than $100,000 per flight, helping to defray other overhead costs involved in operating the vehicle. But even a million dollars or two to purchase a SpaceShipOne flight should be affordable for the ultimate reality show prize. After all, “Survivor” awarded million-dollar prizes.

Add to this some other advantages. For starters, Hollywood is much closer to the Mojave Desert than the Kazakh desert. Production costs for central California will still be higher than Vancouver, but undoubtedly less than operating from the other side of the planet. Even adding in the costs of sending the show’s competitors on jaunts to Mission Control in Houston and to Kennedy Space Center will not bust the bank.

But even a million dollars or two to purchase a SpaceShipOne flight should be affordable for the ultimate reality show prize. After all, “Survivor” awarded million-dollar prizes.

Such a show will undoubtedly cost more than the typical reality show, if only for the fact that the production crew will have to be somewhat mobile rather than filming a bunch of people in a hot tub. But it will not need to bear the burden of uncertainty and sticker shock associated with a Soyuz flight. These costs could also probably be defrayed with clever marketing associated with a California launch—paint SpaceShipOne like a Mountain Dew can for the flight and reap major advertising dollars.

Furthermore, SpaceShipOne is designed to be launched with minimal preparation. But more importantly, it is not subject to the requirements of various other government organizations who are also using the flight. A reality show could book a flight in primetime and have a good expectation that the vehicle will be ready to go, assuming that the weather cooperates.

This new reality makes it likely that there will be a rush among TV production companies to be the first to secure a flight aboard SpaceShipOne or its competitors. However, there is far less value to being second in this race, so a flurry of announcements will probably not result in more than one or two actual programs.

Expect to see Mark Burnett signing up soon.


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