Mars One concept artWill history record that a reality TV show was the catalyst for human colonization of the cosmos? Not the nobility of discovery, the quest for knowledge, the need to know whether we are alone, not even the simple pursuit of mineral wealth. Might it really be TV ratings? Mars One has begun to take video applications for trainees for its Mars colony. The first batch of one-way colonists are scheduled for lift-off in September 2022. The company says it will have a pool of 40 astronauts. The first four will land in 2023, the second group of four (the “intruders”?) in 2025. Yet perhaps TV ratings are not such a bad a motivation – there are precedents.

The Apollo 11 Moon landing was the most watched TV event in history to that time with a 93 per cent audience share, although you may wonder what the other 7 per cent were watching that was judged superior. As the Wikipedia article on Apollo 11 and popular culture notes, on the day Armstrong was selected for astronaut training, his parents appeared on the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret” and the host asked them: “Wouldn’t it be something if your son were the first man on the moon?”

There’s also a dark side. In the movie “Apollo 13” much is made of the declining interest of TV viewers in the mission. The ratings only return when things start to go wrong. (Ed: Does anyone have TV ratings compared for all the Apollo missions? Tell me in the comments)

What does all this tell us about Mars One? In this article about Mars One in New Scientist magazine, a reader “Enzo” makes two extremely good points in the comments. First that reality TV shows generally thrive on conflict, yet here our TV pioneers will be chosen for compatibility. If everyone just “gets along” and cooperates surely that isn’t going to make for exciting viewing – remember that one of the Mars One ambassadors is Paul Romer, a creator of the Big Brother worldwide franchise. Enzo’s second point: If the first batch somehow does manage to land on Mars will we (the subgroup of tax-paying, compassionate Earthlings) be then emotionally blackmailed into forever supporting them irrespective of the TV show’s fortunes? Would we really leave them up there to die just because the TV show’s money ran and the ratings dived?

You could take Enzo’s scenario a little further. Many people are familiar with the TV term “jumping the shark” (see Wikipedia’s definition), in short it’s the moment when a TV show uses some desperate gimmick in an attempt to turnaround declining ratings. The term originated from the TV show “Happy Days” when a leather-jacket-clad Fonzie literally jumped a shark on water skis. What could the “jump the shark” moment be for Mars One?

The idea could make a good sci-fi story. Might the Mars One colonists all be young, talented and physically beautiful just like a cliche-ridden movie? Might an anonymized and malicious Earth audience vote to deprive them of certain foods or entertainments? Send the least popular colonist on a dangerous prospecting mission; engineer jealousies by altering timetables or living quarters; or start a more salacious viewing channel? Might the Mars One colonists rebel, disable the cameras, and declare their independence? Could the Mars One “star cast” of lovely young things surprise everyone and make the most absurd Hollywood fantasy a reality?

How will Mars One retain its ratings over more than a decade and how might that affect the character of the colony? Let me know in the comments.

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