The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Mars One base
Mars One’s recent setbacks make it all the harder for it to move ahead with a reality TV show, something that was already a project that many others have tried, and failed, to do in spaceflight. (credit: Mars One)

The Ides of Mars One

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Very few people think that Mars One is ever going to get to Mars. There is equal reason to believe that they will not be able to produce a reality TV show.

There have been at least ten announced space-themed reality TV projects over the past fifteen years, including Mars One’s deal with Endemol. Not one of them ever made it to television.

March was a pretty bad month for Mars One. After the great publicity they received with their mid-February announcement of their one hundred candidates to compete to eventually fly to Mars, they experienced the other side of the media bandwagon—more like a steamroller—with a series of negative articles about their prospects. My grad school buddy Dan Vergano may have kicked it off with a withering BuzzFeed article titled “Mars Missions Are a Scam.” At the same time, an article in The Guardian quoted a Nobel Laureate who was also a “supporter” of Mars One now calling the project unrealistic. By mid-March the articles really started slamming Mars One. There was the Gizmodo article with the headline “Mars One is Broke, Disorganized, and Sketchy as Hell.” There was an article in Canada’s National Post where a former astronaut said that the technology to do the mission does not exist. Then there was the big one: an interview with one of the 100 finalists for Mars One’s astronaut corps blasting their initial selection process. The finalist (now ex-finalist) followed up with an essay in The Guardian. The Washington Post, which a few weeks earlier had published a fawning Style section piece on Mars One, summarized all the controversy with a blog post “That one-way flight to Mars is losing its sheen.” Even Cracked jumped into the scrum. This wasn’t completely new: Buzz Aldrin was skeptical in August 2013, and Chris Hadfield had voiced his doubts back in December. The media seemed to be piling on by this point, repeating essentially the same stories.

February had not been much better for Mars One, and in some ways had been worse, because several articles appeared that month that demonstrated that Mars One was experiencing real setbacks. There were reports in mid-February that Mars One’s deal with reality show production company Endemol had fallen apart. SpaceNews also reported that Mars One had suspended work on their two robotic spacecraft missions; their launch dates have since slipped from 2018 to 2020. That slip was part of an overall two-year slip announced by Mars One on March 19, meaning the date for the first human landing had slipped to 2027. In less than two years, the expected launch date for that first human mission had slipped by four years.

Publicity is important to Mars One. They need good publicity for fundraising. They got a lot of good publicity when they announced their 100 finalists, including extended segments on the 24-hour news channels. The media, especially news channels and heavily-updated news sites, have voracious appetites and must be fed. They’re generally uninterested in how true a story is than they are in its entertainment value, and Mars One is unusual enough and offers enough opportunity for them to make fun of that it’s perfect fodder for lightweight entertainment, particularly in the mid-morning. But Mars One is getting bad publicity. And they need good publicity because much of their funding model is based on the concept of a reality show.

The long, strange trip of space reality TV

There is actually a long history of people pushing reality television ideas involving spaceflight only to have them fall apart. Believe it or not, that idea goes back at least fifteen years. In 2000, Mark Burnett, the producer of numerous successful reality television shows, most notably “Survivor,” proposed “Destination: Mir.” 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. But something happened and apparently Burnett couldn’t really strike a deal with the company then operating Mir, MirCorp. Amsterdam-based MirCorp announced plans for its own show called “Ancient Astronaut,” but nothing ever came of it. MirCorp failed to keep the station aloft (and one of their leaders ended up in federal prison). After the Mir space station was deorbited, Burnett renamed his show “Destination: Space,” featuring a flight to the International Space Station instead. The reputed price tag for the show was $50 million. But Burnett’s project never made it to television.

This highlights one of the problems for Mars One: reality television exists because it is relatively cheap to produce, and nothing about spaceflight is cheap, not even the training.

After that, other projects were announced. “Celebrity Mission” 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. Bass’ saga became entwined with that of Lori Garver, who billed herself as “AstroMom” and was seeking to secure funding to send her on a space joyride, although there was no reality show project associated with Garver’s effort (see “AstroMom and Basstronaut revisited,” The Space Review, November 19, 2007). 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 once again, after an initial press announcement nothing more was heard from the network about this effort. 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.

The excitement over the Ansari X PRIZE and the success of SpaceShipOne led some naïve people to speculate that there would soon be a “reality space race” over securing the rights to a space-themed reality TV show tied to one of the suborbital space providers (see “The reality space race”, The Space Review, June 21, 2004). Of course, nobody expected that eleven years later none of the reusable suborbital space companies would be anywhere near commercial flights.

In late 2013, Mark Burnett was back again, this time as executive producer of a show called “Space Race” that had reportedly been “picked up” by NBC. That would feature a flight on a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo as the final prize. That too never happened, and one can imagine that Burnett was feeling a bit of déjà vu all over again. With no clear idea of when, or even if, Virgin Galactic will ever fly paying customers, it is safe to assume that “Space Race” is, as Hollywood likes to charitably put it, “in turnaround.” (The less charitable term is “development hell.”) At almost the exact same time that “Space Race” was announced, Sony Pictures Television announced that it was working on a similar project called “Milky Way Mission” that would culminate in a launch aboard an XCOR Aerospace vehicle. Considering that XCOR has not yet even conducted a test flight of its vehicle, such a show can also be considered to be in turnaround as well. That makes at least ten announced space-themed reality TV projects, including Mars One’s deal with Endemol. Not one of them ever made it to television.

Dreams of a Red Planet

Bas Lansdorp has held up the Olympics as his media model, pointing to the billions of dollars paid for broadcast rights to the Olympics by various media companies around the world. But this is akin to saying that your high school football team may be able to make a lot of money televising its games because the Super Bowl rakes in big money—just because the projects bear some superficial resemblance does not mean that the audience, or the money, is in the same league.

A space-themed reality show would have some ready-made visuals. Put the candidates through some rigorous and groan-inducing physical challenges. Have them eat bugs in the jungle or practice a water splashdown. Put them in a centrifuge. Show them undergoing uncomfortable medical tests. Then put them in high-performance aircraft and expose them to positive and negative gees to see if they can hold down their lunch. Eventually they’ll all fly in a vomit comet, either having a thrilling time or getting sick. There are of course logistical challenges and costs for all this. The best high-performance space simulation used to be a high-altitude flight in a Russian MiG-25 fighter jet, but those flights weren’t cheap and today the problem is that they are in Russia. The Zero G aircraft that used to fly in the United States has been grounded for over a year due to business problems. And hauling contestants around to various locations—jungle, ocean, airbase, centrifuge—is not as cheap as setting up camp on an island or in a big mansion (with the obligatory hot tub). All of these things could have been done already by a show, although one of them could have culminated in an actual spaceflight.

If anything, this highlights one of the problems for Mars One: reality television exists because it is relatively cheap to produce, and nothing about spaceflight is cheap, not even the training. Some TV producer could have done an extreme aviation/space challenge-themed show in the past fifteen years using available assets like centrifuges and high-performance aircraft. None have.

Reality television also banks upon attractive stars (there are no ugly people on “The Bachelor”) and competitions that are ultimately rather meaningless. But any reality TV show for Mars One will face the dilemma that the “winners” will have to be chosen for real medical, physical, and mental qualifications, and not how well they did on TV.

But perhaps the biggest problem for Mars One is the schedule. When is this reality television program featuring the contestants going to start? Now? Five years from now? Or perhaps eleven years from now as the final selectees are training for their 2027 launch to Mars? It seems rather unrealistic to propose a show that has to be successful for many years before it actually offers a payoff. And as fifteen years of failed reality television proposals demonstrates, without the real prospect of a space flight, the shows just don’t get off the ground.