May 17, 2013 6:03 pm

I’m a celebrity … get me outer space

A mission to colonise Mars will be funded through a reality TV series. They may be doomed and lonely but at least they’ll be on TV
Illustration by Lucas Varela of people landing on Mars©Lucas Varela

I’ve always been a strong advocate of a manned mission to Mars, on the clear understanding, of course, that it is some other man on the mission.

Happily, it turns out that there are nearly 80,000 volunteers. That’s right; almost 80,000 people have already registered for the chance to join a mission with only one guarantee: that they will end their life on the red planet.

How exactly that end will come is still rather up for grabs. The happy scenario will see them living to a decent age, spawning children and founding a new civilisation, albeit one in an entirely enclosed environment with the certainty of instant and excruciating expiry should Houston ever have a problem. The unhappy outcome is a painful, lonely death within days of their arrival on the red planet.

But what is certain is that this is a one-way ticket, less a mission to Mars than a mission to colonise it. It’s like the Wild West except that the new frontier at least offered some basic amenities like, well, oxygen. Admittedly, I’m not the courageous type. I’d draw the line at a mission to Stoke Newington – but they tell me it does at least have running water. However hopeless the transport links in London, there is still an outside chance of one day getting home to the family.

It is easy to mock the Dutch company behind the Mars One project (and I shall be doing so directly) but private space exploration is already a reality and colonisation is not as far-fetched as it sounds, even if this particular plan has a whiff of moonshine about it. What really caught the attention, however, was the project’s business model. It intends to fund the scheme through a reality TV series homing in on the selection process and life on the planet. They may be doomed and lonely but at least they’ll be on TV.

Children of my era dreamt of being astronauts. Children of today seem to dream of being reality TV stars. How perfect then that someone has found a way to span the generations and marry the two ideas. There are some downsides. The show’s winners will have little chance to cash in on their fame. There are few film premieres in the Martian canals and absolutely no nightclubs to open on the planet’s northern regions. The ideal outcome is surely elimination from the show just before the final round and a presenting role in the ITV2 spin-off series.

Still, the reality TV dimension will coax the popular news sites to covering the mission. “Disaster strikes Mars-walk as low gravity exposes astrobabe’s cellulite.” Perhaps the producers can hire that Geordie narrator from Big Brother: “Day 27 in the Martian House and John is slowly dying of radiation poisoning.”

There are many arguments for a manned mission and even a colony – although some might argue instead for focusing resources on preserving our own already hospitable planet. There is the general principle that we are a race of explorers whose entire progress hails from going wherever is next. There is also the belief that only a manned mission can offer Apollo-style inspiration to future generations.

Still, I worry whether the frontier spirit sits well with the reality TV type. If I’m to spend the rest of my life trapped in a hostile wilderness with a handful of people, I’d want them to be thoughtful, resourceful, dependable and not too self-absorbed. I don’t want some preening egotist who the public has taken to heart because he has a fake tan, a hard life and works on the meat counter at Asda.

Maybe this is too cynical. Explorers need to work with the media available. Maybe even this flaky scheme would instil in kids the values of hard work and the wonder of exploration. One day, probably within our lifetime, humans will stand on Mars and a new generation will be galvanised by a dream greater than being berated by Simon Cowell or Alan Sugar.

But perhaps this misses the bigger picture. If there is real overlap between all those reality TV wannabes and those seeking a life on Mars, there are still quite a few of us on Earth who would be only too happy to assist with the fundraising.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com. Twitter@robertshrimsley

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