The website for the planned “Space Hero” reality TV show has a countdown clock but little else about the show that would send the winner to the ISS. (credit: spacehero.me)
Two weeks ago, the Hollywood publication Deadline reported an exclusive that sounded a lot like déjà vu all over again:
“Space Hero Inc., a U.S.-based production company founded by Thomas Reemer and Deborah Sass and led by former News Corp Europe chief Marty Pompadur, has secured a seat on a 2023 mission to the International Space Station. It will go to a contestant chosen through an unscripted show titled Space Hero. Produced by Ben Silverman and Howard Owens’ Propagate, the series will launch a global search for everyday people from any background who share a deep love for space exploration. They will be vying for the biggest prize ever awarded on TV.”
Deadline had more details:
“The selected group of contestants will undergo extensive training and face challenges testing their physical, mental and emotional strength, qualities that are essential for an astronaut in space. I hear the idea is for the culmination of the competition to be in a an episode broadcast live around the world where viewers from different countries can vote for the contestant they want to see going to space. The show will then chronicle the winner’s takeoff; their stay at the ISS for 10 days alongside professional astronauts traveling at 17,000 mph, orbiting the Earth 16 times a day; and end with their return to Earth. The Space Hero company is currently in discussions with NASA for a potential partnership on STEM initiatives onboard the ISS.
The trip of the Space Hero winner is expected be on a SpaceX Dragon rocket though a launch provider is yet to be officially selected. Space Hero, billed as the first space media company, is working with Axiom Space, manufacturer of the world’s first privately funded commercial space station — a module for the ISS where the private astronauts can stay — and full-service human spaceflight mission provider.”
Of course, this is Hollywood, where production companies announce all kinds of plans, some of them much more solid than others, where often the announcement of a project does not mean that the project is about to happen. The article contained this bit of information: “The series will be taken out soon, with a global streaming platform and a broadcast partner in each country, including the U.S., explored as distribution options.”
“Taken out” is Hollywood jargon for “go looking for somebody to pay us to do this.” And when it comes to space-based reality television, lots of proposals like this have been “taken out” before, giving the term a more ominous meaning. In fact, by one count, this is now the twelfth time that somebody has attempted to create a reality TV show with a spaceflight as the prize.
Around 20 years ago, there was the first of a long string of announced reality television shows that would culminate in a flight into space for a lucky winner. The one, or at least the first one that became public, 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 even 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 efforts. The company then worked on another television 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. (More than 17 years later, Bass poked fun at himself as the proprietor of “Lance Bass Space Camp” in the ABC sitcom “Single Parents.”) 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 was heard about that plan either. All of these shows would have used the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and the International Space Station.
A humorous incident occurred in 2005 with BBC Channel 4’s “Space Cadet” show, which tricked contestants into thinking they were being launched into space to a Russian space station. “Aw man,” one contestant said upon learning the truth. “We’re not astronauts. We’re just asses.”
There were further efforts to create a reality TV show with a spaceflight grand prize. In fall 2013, Burnett was back with “Space Race,” also for NBC, but this time the prize would be a flight aboard a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft. That show plan also folded after a fatal crash of SpaceShipTwo during testing. Virgin Galactic still has not started tourist flights, and since that time other space tourist companies, such as XCOR, have gone belly-up. Blue Origin is the only other company currently trying to develop a space tourist capability that could possibly support a reality television show, but nobody knows when they may realistically start flying.
There have been even more recent attempts at space-themed reality TV shows as well, such as Sony Pictures TV’s “Milky Way Mission.” Bas Lansdorp’s Mars One was also supposed to result in a reality TV show produced by Lionsgate TV, but Mars One declared bankruptcy in early 2019. In January 2020, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who has reportedly booked a flight to fly in a SpaceX Starship around the Moon, announced a documentary and contest to find a woman 20 years or older to be his “girlfriend” on the flight. This announcement resulted in such a public backlash that two weeks later Maezawa canceled the project and apologized on Twitter.
If you are keeping count, that is eleven shows announced to date. There were probably numerous others that were discussed but never became public, most likely in the late 2000s when it looked like suborbital space tourism was about to become reality. In fact, “Space Hero’s” Thomas Reemer had one himself over a decade ago. Deadline describes Reemer as “the project’s creator and founding partner, a software, e-commerce, gaming and digital distribution entrepreneur with extensive background in the music industry.” The article provided some more background on the show:
“Space Hero can be traced back to 2008. While working on a girl band global talent search reality show, Reemer visited Moscow and met with Channel One CEO Konstantin Ernst, who brought up the idea for a reality series that would find through a casting search somebody who would be sent to the International Space Station. The two worked on the premise, which was ultimately shelved as the U.S. in 2009 announced the shutdown of NASA’s shuttle program, with the last flight taking place in 2011. Years later, Reemer and Sass, a seasoned entertainment tech industry executive, had teamed on a project together after getting to know each other over their work in the same area of music and tech convergence.”
Anybody can write a Hollywood press release (the key is to slather on the superlatives and adjectives—everybody is always “thrilled” and “excited” to be working with their new partner), but very few people can raise tens of millions of dollars of capital to fund a television production. And a reality TV show involving space has in many ways always been a contradiction in terms. The appeal of reality television for TV networks (or now streaming services) has long been that they can be produced substantially cheaper than scripted dramas. There are no expensive stars to pay, and the writing team also costs a lot less. Often the shows are filmed in pre-existing locations, such as a mansion where a bachelor hands out roses. The production certainly has to modify the location for filming purposes (usually adding a hot tub), but that can be much cheaper than building multiple sets on multiple sound stages.
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. A seat on a SpaceX Dragon capsule is still going to cost millions of dollars. As Jeff Foust recently wrote in SpaceNews, the “prize” for “Space Hero” will probably cost the program anywhere from $50 to 65 million, and that’s before the production costs are added in. Most reality shows have a prize of a million dollars or less, meaning that “Space Hero” will probably cost several times more than a normal reality show to produce.
Add to that the problem that the big event cannot be timed to meet a specific TV time slot. A launch to the International Space Station is dictated by orbital dynamics, not the number of eyeballs staring at TV screens, and Florida’s weather may not cooperate.
But those are merely details. This time, we are told, things are different, because this time, the people involved are not successful television producers with long track records. From the Deadline article:
“There’s three reasons why we believe this show will work,” Sass said. “One is, the technology is far more advanced now than it was 20 years ago. You really truly can have a global audience watching the same thing at the same time in their own native language. That didn’t happen 20 years ago. Secondly, we have been very strategic and methodical in making the space industry our stakeholders. And the third reason is we’re not a Mark Burnett, a Simon Fuller or Simon Cowell. We are not seasoned professional producers. What we are is entrepreneurs, and we have very varied backgrounds.”
There you have it. They’re entrepreneurs. How could they possibly fail?