The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

The Martian
The 2015 movie The Martian has led to a number of television shows about humans living on Mars. Many of them have been grim, but the recently-concluded “Stars on Mars” was more fun. Even so, the show had some interesting lessons about the difficulties of sending humans to the Red Planet. (credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

It’s not easy being a Martian

Bookmark and Share

For years, Popular Science magazine compiled its list of the worst jobs in science. Many of them involved the collection and analysis of disgusting samples. But one of the surprises on their list was astronaut. Yes, being weightless seems like a dream, and the ability to stare out the window at the blue Earth sounds romantic. But there are severe drawbacks to the job, from the inherent danger, intense training, separation from family, deleterious effects on the body and, of course, hygiene (the most common question people ask astronauts is how they go to the bathroom in space, and the answer is never pleasant.) It’s not easy being a spaceperson. That has been a theme of Fox’s recently concluded reality TV show “Stars on Mars”. You can stream it on Hulu, or watch it online. What looked like the kind of show that would cause space enthusiasts to roll their eyes has turned out to be entertaining, visually interesting, and provides some useful lessons about what it could be like living on the Red Planet.

Stars on Mars
The final “mission” for the remaining competitors was inspired by one of the last scenes from the 1998 movie Red Planet. The two “celebronauts” raced to power up a rocket to beam a signal containing their message to Earth. (credit: Fox)

Who do you want to be cooped up with?

There have been many real-world Mars analogs with groups of people trying to simulate some of the requirements of a long-duration mission to Mars. There was the notorious Biosphere 2 effort in the early 1990s that inspired a rather ridiculous (and stupid) 1996 film parody. The Russians have run semi-regular long-duration simulations that have not always gone smoothly. A year-long NASA-sponsored simulation is currently underway, and there have been a few American-sponsored Mars analog efforts involving real scientists. Each of these activities has had its own set of goals, from studying psychological effects of isolation and team dynamics, to developing operational practices for Mars exploration, to less serious pursuits. “Stars on Mars” is primarily entertainment, but it has shone a light on some of the same issues that have cropped up in the Mars simulations, and has probably reached an audience that would ordinarily never watch a documentary about living on Mars.

Reality shows prefer dramatic, outsize personalities, but on Mars, those kinds of people would likely get shoved out an airlock.

The show premiered in June as lightweight summer fare but turned out to be better than many people expected. It had excellent production values and clever challenges for its “celebronauts.” It wasn’t top-tier reality television (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms), but the show was watchable and lighthearted, managing to take its premise seriously but somehow not take the production too seriously. “Stars on Mars” is more science fiction than reality show, and more science fact than science fiction. And one of the lessons of the show is that it’s not easy being a (fake) astronaut on Mars.

They were not on Mars, of course, they were in Coober Pedy, Australia, a ruggedly beautiful place that gets so hot in summer that most people there live underground. Filming took place in May, when the temperatures were tolerable. Certainly the conditions in their artificial hab in the desert are not as difficult as they would be on Mars. They undoubtedly had plenty of hot water. And although it got dusty inside their living facility, they didn’t have to deal with the fact that Mars probably smells pretty bad.

Over 12 episodes, six of the crew members were ejected by their peers, but five others voluntarily withdrew. Maybe this was partly the result of there being no big prize for “winning” the show. But the people who declared themselves no longer “mission critical” and asked to be sent home cited the difficulty of accomplishing the missions, isolation from family, and their own limitations in the environment, which can require physical prowess as well as social skills. All of those issues would face real astronauts on Mars over a much longer period of time, although presumably any program to send humans to the Red Planet would seek to screen out applicants based upon those and other psychological criteria. Reality shows prefer dramatic, outsize personalities, but on Mars, those kinds of people would likely get shoved out an airlock.

In the ninth episode, infamous cyclist Lance Armstrong bowed out. He was always competitive, and during the show he said that he thought that to be successful required that he needed to always give 100% in every mission they undertook. But he came to realize that he lacked the people skills to be effective. Although the show portrayed this as an inability to play the typical reality show game of forging alliances with teammates to avoid elimination, there was enough on-camera evidence to indicate that Armstrong was just inherently prickly, sometimes going out of his way to needle certain crewmates. That kind of personality would be bad, and potentially disastrous, for a long-duration space mission.

The following week, actor Ariel Winter was sent home. Technically, she declared that she was not mission critical, but she did so before her crewmates were probably going to say so themselves. Winter’s problem was that she always struggled with the heavy and cumbersome simulated spacesuits and fell short on the missions. The irony was that she had clashed with Armstrong, and although he withdrew because he lacked the social skills to be successful, she withdrew because she lacked the physical acumen to succeed.

Reality television is to some extent scripted, and viewers never know what is “real” versus a situation created by the producers or the participants to increase the drama. One of the more interesting twists to a recent episode was that the crew performing the mission—trying to recover a lost robot—was under intense time pressure because their newly-selected “base commander” made a key mistake and sent them in the wrong direction, costing them valuable time. Winter and her crewmates were forced to run through a dark cave, and she fell behind and stumbled, which ultimately took her out of the competition. If her base commander had not screwed up, would Winter have had the same problems and lost out? That story arc alone would make for compelling fiction. Unfortunately, the show and its remaining crewmembers did not delve into it, perhaps because his mistake had been exaggerated in editing.

Stars on Mars
William Shatner traveled to Australia to oversee the final missions. He was allowed to walk around without a spacesuit because Captain James T. Kirk cannot hear you over the sound of how awesome he is. He did not fight a Gorn. (credit: Fox)

Once they were down to the last six contestants, Mission Control changed the rules. There would no longer be a base commander and mission specialist. Instead, all crew members would go outside on missions. In the penultimate episode, they had to respond to two faint distress signals from distant locations. They split into two teams, which each had to align ground antennas according to the order of the planets. The quickest team was sent to investigate the strongest signal, and the slower (by only a few seconds) was sent to investigate the weaker signal.

The first team set out on their rover crossing the desert until they saw a lone figure in the distance. That turned out to be William Shatner, who had been communicating with them “from Earth” during previous episodes. Now he was somehow on Mars, and also didn’t need a spacesuit. When one of the surprised celebrities went to remove his own helmet, Shatner waved him off—they still had to play by the rules, even if Captain Kirk did not. Shatner climbed aboard their rover and they drove him back to base, where he proved to be amiable and cracked jokes, at one point quipping: “As the commander of my mission to space said: ‘sit down.’”

“Stars on Mars” somehow managed to hit most of the right notes. It was clever, well-written, well-produced, and fun. It avoided the worst reality TV tropes.

The other crew drove off through the desert only to find an empty space capsule. They then had to camp out overnight, with one of their team returning to the hab. The next morning the two remaining crewmembers showed up, and the remaining group reluctantly voted off football player Marshawn Lynch, who had been with them from the beginning. Although he had performed well on almost every mission, he had not gone the extra mile with his crewmates in the hab, ignoring things like housekeeping chores. His ejection demonstrated that success was not just about performance and likeability, but supporting the entire crew.

The final episode had the five remaining contestants—three who had been there from the beginning, and two who had been added midway. The contestants each got to vote from one to five about who should stay, and in the end, the two newcomers were ejected from the hab. The three who remained—reality show star Porsha, singer/songwriter Tinashe, and Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon—had all bonded almost from the start of the show. Unlike many reality shows where alliances form for convenience, these three seemed to like each other and look out for each other: their friendship was personal, not strategic, and that proved key to making it to the end. That is also another lesson that could be applied to a real Mars mission. But this was still a competition show, and there could be only one “Brightest Star in the Galaxy.”

Stars on Mars
Olympic ice skater Adam Rippon barely beat his competitor, earning the title of “Brightest Star in the Galaxy.” One of the show’s strengths was its clever missions. Another was that it did not take itself too seriously. (credit: Fox)

For the final competition, William Shatner pressed a big red button that would shut down and depressurize the hab while the three celebronauts were quizzed about Mars, answering questions about the planet’s moons, diameter, seasons, and composition. The first to finish was the first to head out to the rover, followed by the runner up, and the last was left behind.

At that point, Adam raced off on the final mission, with Tinashe trailing far behind. The very last mission was inspired by one of the last scenes in the 1998 movie Red Planet, where an astronaut played by Val Kilmer had to fuel up an old Russian Mars lander (and where, exhausted from struggling to stay alive, he says “I really hate this planet…”). Adam and Tinashe each had a rocket waiting for them to make it possible to beam their “message to Earth,” which was recorded on a CD, adding a bit of retro-chic to the challenge. They had to connect electrical cables to solar panels to power up the rocket, hook up the rocket’s guidance system (“Are we still using wires, it’s 2023!” joked Adam), and then remove the nosecone to expose the satellite. Although he fell behind because he failed to read the instructions, Adam pulled ahead at the very end. When the rocket was ready it tilted up toward the sky. Adam Rippon was named “The Brightest Star in the Galaxy.” His message to Earth was not exactly inspirational, but it was amusing.

“Stars on Mars” somehow managed to hit most of the right notes. It was clever, well-written, well-produced, and fun. It avoided the worst reality TV tropes, like the backstabbing and the often-faked drama. The people who produced it obviously watched a lot of Mars-themed movies to get their ideas, but one also gets the impression that they were having fun along the way.

The show ended with a message that may have been required by the film location’s town council, but was almost certainly a bit tongue-in-cheek: a billboard that said “Drop in to Coober Pedy, a whole lot to see and do.”

Just don’t go in summer.

Stars on Mars
“Stars on Mars” was filmed in Coober Pedy, Australia, a location so beautiful that everybody lives underground. (credit: Fox)


For more on recent Mars-themed TV shows, see: “Reality is underrated: Fox’s Stars on Mars takes off,” The Space Review, July 10, 2023; “Red planet reality,” The Space Review, May 30, 2023; “Red zeitgeist: popular entertainment and the settlement of Mars, part 3,” The Space Review, January 16, 2017; “Love and a Red Planet: popular entertainment and the settlement of Mars (part 1),” The Space Review, November 28, 2016; “Red Planet blues: popular entertainment and the settlement of Mars (part 2),” December 5, 2016; “Mars: Bringer of ennui (part 1),” The Space Review, January 21, 2019 and “Mars: Bringer of ennui (part 2)”, January 28, 2019; “Mars ain’t the kind of place to take your kid: Netflix’s ‘Away,’” The Space Review, October 5, 2020.

Note: we are using a new commenting system, which may require you to create a new account.