Private space flight has had quite a boom in the past few years, but until now, it's been funded by floods of IPO cash or the occasional promise of extraterrestrial minerals. But a Dutch entrepreneur named Bas Lansdorp has lit onto a new source of funding for his upcoming Mars One project: the world's first extraterrestrial reality show.
The plan is for a colonization mission, but the show would start even earlier, with months of rigorous screening and viewer voting to pick the four astronauts. (Think The Right Stuff meets American Idol; Lansdorp says he's already heard from hundreds of would-be contestants.) The heart of the show would come once the astronaut contestants started to settle into their new Martian home. As Lansdorp told us, "Everybody watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon. But everyboy stopped watching." With the Martian equivalent of a Real World house, it's much easier to lock viewers in.
Also, there's no way back. Mars One says a return mission isn't workable with current technology, so the colonists will all be spending the rest of their lives on what they hope will be a growing Martian colony. The show, as they say, must go on.
There are many reasons to be skeptical. It would be the first time a human being has landed on another planet, much less permanently settled one, and it comes at a time when most private space shuttles are still struggling to make it into orbit. Then there's the price. Lansdorp estimates it will cost around $6 billion, but NASA's most recent moon landing proposal cost twice that, and it didn't involve building a permanent settlement. Lansdorp has a good reputation with the TED crowd — his last project used drones to generate wind power — but there's no indication he's up for an engineering challenge like this.
Still, it would make for a hell of a TV show. Space travel has always made for great television, from the first moon landing to the SpaceX Dragon launch in May. And when the astronauts are public figures who have committed themselves to living and dying on camera, it's easy to imagine a network seizing on Lansdorp's pitch, even if it gets scaled down a bit along the way.
Unlike NASA, Mars One isn't developing its own technology, so the rockets and shuttles will be built entirely with currently available designs. Relying on television circa 2012 is a bit dicier. As Lansdorp told us, "nobody knows what the media will look like in 10 years," so pitching a television event a decade in advance is the trickiest part.
In other words, the media is officially moving faster than rocket science.