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Space reality TV shows: 21 years of shows that never took flight

Discovery Channel just announced a thrilling new reality competition series, Who Wants To Be An Astronaut?, whose prize is a trip to the International Space Station. The network calls the show, which is planned for 2022, “the first of its kind to feature a real-life space adventure.”

However, it’s not the first reality show to be referred to as Who Wants to Be An Astronaut?. And it is not even the first to claim to be the first show of its kind in the last six weeks! That’d be Space Hero, news of which first emerged last fall, and which recently called itself “the world’s first ever global casting show where contestants compete for a trip to the International Space Station.”

So now we have two competing reality competitions, though only one of them is publicly attached to a network. If either of these happen, they’ll be pretty spectacular television and make history. If they don’t succeed—and TV shows don’t make it to air all the time, for all kinds of reasons—they’ll join a long list of failed attempts to send people into space as part of reality TV programs over the past two decades.

Why is that? In 2004, The Space Review looked at some space reality shows and noted, “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. … 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.”

The only send-people-into-space reality show that I could find that actually aired on television was a 2005 UK Channel 4 series, Space Cadets, which actually didn’t send people into space. Instead, it lied to its cast: They thought they were in Russia and, later, orbiting around the Earth, but the whole time they were in the UK, and were sent into space via a simulator in a hangar. The crew were actors, including one of the contestants, making it a sort of space-themed The Joe Schmo Show.

Here’s a look back at some the previous attempts to send people into space as part of a reality show. I planned to make this list comprehensive, but over 21 years, space reality shows have basically been like Tribbles, multiplying around the world—though unlike Tribbles, most of these simply evaporated.

Destination: Mir (2000)

Russia's Mir space station, photographed from the Space Shuttle Discovery on Feb. 6, 1995
Russia’s Mir space station, photographed from the Space Shuttle Discovery on Feb. 6, 1995. (Photo by NASA)

Just after Survivor: Borneo concluded with huge ratings, NBC won a “multimillion-dollar bidding” war for Mark Burnett’s Destination: Mir, a competition show that would have concluded with the winner going to the Russian space station Mir.

The show planned to work with a company, MirCorp, whose president said in a press release that “MirCorp’s goal is to commercialize space and bring the dream of space travel and exploration within reach of ordinary citizens, and we are excited to be working with Mark Burnett and NBC.”

The show was described in the release like this:

The “Destination Mir” series will open with a two-hour premiere introducing viewers to a diverse cast of at least a dozen American civilians who will assemble to train for the mission at Star City, a cosmonaut training facility located near Moscow. Each week, one participant will be eliminated from training and will be sent home by Russian space officials.

In the dramatic, live two-hour conclusion, the finalists will be assembled on the launch platform. The winner will earn the ultimate adventure ticket as he or she boards a Soyuz spacecraft that will launch for a trip to the Mir space station – located hundreds of miles above Earth – followed by a stay aboard before the return flight home. The winner will enter the Soyuz vehicle and viewers will watch as he or she travels into space. In the days following the launch, NBC will continue coverage on the winner and will follow their journey, the visit onboard Mir and the eventual return to Earth.

NBC executive Garth Ancier said in a press release that “This was a very complicated deal to arrange but with Survivor producer Mark Burnett’s guidance, we believe it has unlimited potential and will take this type of reality programming to the next level.”

In the announcement, Mark Burnett said, “Space is the ultimate adventure and destination. The fact that we will allow several ordinary people to undergo cosmonaut (boot camp) training at Star City, Russia, with one being selected to actually travel in a Russian spacecraft to Mir is extremely exciting to me. Their experience will make great dramatic television. Until now, only professional cosmonauts, astronauts or extremely wealthy individuals could hope for this opportunity.”

Destination: Mir was to air in the 2001-2002 TV season. Mir was de-orbited and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in March 2001, about six months after the show was announced.

Destination: Space (2001)

Mark Burnett’s dreams did not burn up in the atmosphere, at least not then. His NBC show was renamed Destination: Space, and he said this in an online Variety chat on June 14, 2001:

“I’m absolutely still planning a show to send someone into space. I either have to offer an orbital trip onboard a Soyuz [a Russian spacecraft], or I have to get permission from the RSA and the NASA to take the winner of my show on board the ISS [an American spacecraft].”

In July 2001, NBC executives talked about plans at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Broadcasting and Cable reported that “[NBC West Coast President Scott] Sassa says they are sending a group of development executives to Russia in the next month or so and that Dennis Tito has really paved the way for the show. Destination Space will pit a dozen or so contestants competing for opportunity to go into space. The show was expected to air during the 2001-2002 season, but NBC executives won’t talk about possible airdates.” (We’re still waiting for an airdate.)

Ancient Astronaut (2001)

While the title sounds like Ancient Aliens, this show was pitched more like a standard competition show, the winner ultimately getting a 2003 trip on a Soyuz space craft.

MirCorp was also involved in this project, according to Nature, which reported that “Image World Media (IWM), the Singapore-based TV company that announced its plans for the 13-part show” with its “partner MirCorp, the largely Russian-owned space commercialization company.”

To get contestants to Star City to train with Russian cosmonauts, Nature reported:

… hopefuls must journey to places that some people believe have been visited by aliens.

Locations could include the Egyptian pyramids, England’s Stonehenge and the Nazca Plains of Peru, says Image World Media (IWM), the Singapore-based TV company that announced its plans for the 13-part show yesterday.

There, they will face trials of wit and perseverance, “using tools, materials and methods of their ancient predecessors”, says IWM president Mark Elenowitz. “The basic idea is to follow in the footsteps of the chariots of the gods,” he says.

Untitled Lance Bass project (2002)

90's House, MTV, Christina Milian, Lance Bass
Lance Bass, hosting a show that actually did get made: 90s House

Lance Bass may have gotten closer than anyone else to going into space for a reality TV show: He was in Russia, training, ready for an Oct. 30, 2002, trip to the ISS onboard Soyuz.

But ultimately, the people putting the show together didn’t have the $20 million Russia wanted, giving us this lead in a New York Times story:

The Russian Aviation and Space Agency scrubbed the teenage idol and pop singer Lance Bass today from its passenger list for an October flight to the International Space Station, saying that in the end Mr. Bass lacked the right stuff for space travel.

The right stuff being, in this case, $20 million, payable in advance, thank you.

The story of the ‘NSync member’s journey to that point is considerable: Lance wrote an entire chapter about it in his memoir, and The Space Review has a detailed history—which also involves another possible space tourist. The scramble to save the project involved both MTV and Discovery Channel.

When Lance lost his seat on Soyuz, a spokesperson for MirCorp told The New York Times: “It hasn’t broken down. We are extremely confident that we will reach a solution for Lance’s historic journey. Lance himself remains absolutely committed to doing this mission.” (Lance never went into space.)

Who Wants to Be An Astronaut? (2002)

The first show to be called Who Wants To Be An Astronaut? was a Russian series, that would have sent its winner to the ISS for a week in October 2003. The Guardian reported:

The Channel One reality show will feature 16 contestants training at the famous Star City cosmonaut facilities in Moscow.

Viewers will be able to follow their progress, Big Brother-style, around-the-clock, before a panel of judges selects the most talented trainee.

The winner of the show, dubbed “Who Wants to Be An Astronaut?”, will go on a week-long trip to the international space station in October next year.

Channel One bosses are understood to have spent millions of pounds securing the trip, which will be overseen by the Russian space agency, Rosaviakosmos.

Other reports, such as this Space.com story, don’t actually call it “Who Wants to Be An Astronaut?”, so it’s unclear who dubbed it that.

Meanwhile, BBC News reported that “Channel One has not revealed how much it will cost them in total to put the winning contestant into space, but it is known to have paid a first instalment of $2m to Rosaviakosmos.”

What happened to those millions, or the show? These are the only English-language story I could find about the series.

Space Race (2013)

More than a decade after Mark Burnett’s first NBC space reality show dreams, he was back with a new NBC show: Space Race. The new prize: a trip on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, specifically its SpaceShipTwo.

An NBC press release said that the show would be “a groundbreaking, elimination competition series where everyday people compete for … a life-changing experience few people have ever enjoyed, all captured on camera,” and promised “unprecedented access to Virgin Galactic’s home in the state-of-the-art Spaceport America in New Mexico, the departure point and training and preparation center for space flights.”

SpaceShipTwo crashed in 2014, killing one of its pilots. NBC told Deadline it was “gathering information on the situation,” and the show has since disappeared. Meanwhile, the second SpaceShipTwo is still being tested, with its next test flight scheduled for Saturday, May 22, 2021.

Milky Way Mission (2013)

Sony Pictures Television, producers of Shark Tank, planned an international sale of the format Milky Way Mission after the Netherlands developed the first version in 2013. The show was to have celebrity contestants, but only a trip into the atmosphere on a rocket as its prize.

The Hollywood Reporter described it this way:

The format sees ten celebrities living in a special bootcamp, where they undergo rigorous astronaut training. Each week the VIPs undergo a series of physical and mental challenges to try and avoid elimination. The final rounds take place in Mojave, California with the winner getting a seat on a rocket launch just out of earth’s atmosphere into space.

Sony Pictures Television executive Wayne Garvie said, “For years people have dreamt about the possibility of a show in space. SPT is now poised to make that dream real, thanks to the engineering genius of SXC and the format brilliance of [Tuvalu Media and Simpel Media]. While over 100 billion humans have walked the Earth, just a handful have looked back at our planet from space and we will soon be adding to that lucky elite. Testing endurance, agility and bravery, Milky Way Mission is a television format that is genuinely out of this world.” (Milky Way Mission did not add any people to space, as it never aired.)

Untitled Mars One show (2014)

Mars One was a company that planned to send people to Mars—forever, and just leave them there. In 2012, Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp told Fox News, “We will send humans to Mars in 2023. They will live there the rest of their lives. There will be a habitat waiting for them, and we’ll start sending four people every two years.”

Lionsgate TV was first attached to produce a reality TV show following that insanity, with producer Roy Bank telling Deadline, “This is a social experiment that focuses on the people that would sign for something like this — they have to agree to participate and be willing to go on a one-way mission, knowing that if you go, you can never come back.”

Deadline later reported that a subsidiary of Endemol would produce instead. In 2015, Mars One’s Landsdorp told SpaceNews, “We ended our cooperation with Endemol some time ago because we could not reach agreement on the details of the contract.”

Alas, Mars One went bankrupt in 2019, having “made it as far as the “highly produced videos” stage of space colonization,” as TechCrunch noted.

Space Hero (2021, planned 2023)

Space Hero is incredibly ambitious: it doesn’t just plan to send people to the International Space Station, but is already planning for 15 seasons starting in 2023, ones that will eventually go to the moon and Mars.

A statement to Space.com said it “is the world’s first ever global casting show where contestants compete for a trip to the International Space Station” and will be a “competition to send a civilian into space on a $55 million, 10-day trip to the ISS.” 

The show doesn’t yet have a network publicly attached, but reports say it’s being developed by Propagate, which is Ben Silverman and Howard Owens’ production company. The trip to space will be via Axiom Space, which recently announced plans “for the first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station to take place no earlier than January 2022.”

Space.com reported that the production has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA, but a spokesperson said that “does not authorize a private astronaut mission to the International Space Station” and is just “for the purpose of facilitating initial cooperation and information sharing.” A NASA spokesperson also said this:

“Any decision for a longer-term partnership beyond this initial feasibility study covered under the agreement will require additional follow on agreement(s) pending concept approval, distribution, and funding. If approved by NASA, the private astronaut mission and its associated commercial activities would be conducted as part of a separate, future agreement between NASA and a private astronaut mission provider.”

That’s a lot less guaranteed than what Deadline claimed when it revealed the existence of the show last fall, reporting “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.”

Who Wants to be an Astronaut? (2021, planned 2022)

That brings us to Discovery Channel’s series, which will be “produced by Boat Rocker Studios through Matador Content and BoomTown Content,” the network said. Here’s its description:

Contestants will have the opportunity to compete for an official spot aboard an upcoming Axiom mission, expected to be Ax-2 managed by Houston-based Axiom Space, which is building the world’s first commercial space station and is at the forefront of the new model of private space travel.

[…]

But what does it take to win a coveted seat to space? The process will be grueling and only a select few will make it through the rigorous selection process. The series will follow each of the contestants competing for the opportunity in a variety of extreme challenges designed to test them on the attributes real astronauts need most, and as they undergo the training necessary to qualify for space flight and life on board the space station.

In the end, one lucky candidate, deemed to have the right stuff by a panel of expert judges, will punch their ticket for an adventure few have ever taken. The series will chronicle each pivotal moment along the way – from lift off to re-entry and the return home.

The show is now casting, and applicants have to be at least 18 years old and “of a fitness level commensurate with space flight (in good health, able to withstand physical exertion, and meet other space travel related requirements”).

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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