Two reality television shows are in the works that would offer a first for viewers by taking them inside the ISS, as a member of the public will be awarded a multi-million dollar experience to space as the grand prize on both. The Discovery Channel is considering “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut” while a competitor, “Space Hero,” is hoping to land somewhere else.
The “Who Wants to Be An Astronaut” premise is simple and relies on traditional reality television tropes. Here on Earth, contestants will vie for an all-expenses-paid trip to live on the ISS for eight days. The as-yet unknown “variety of extreme challenges” are designed to determine which competitors have what it takes to be a real astronaut, and passage to space will be provided by Houston-based space broker Axiom Space. While NASA hasn’t confirmed that Axiom Space will even be able to secure a seat on a commercial rocket, Discovery is confident in its plans. The media company has even enlisted former astronaut Mike Massimino’s consulting services.
Unlike most astronauts, Massimino is no stranger to filming for entertainment purposes in space. While on a mission to repair the Hubble Telescope in 2009, he personally shot footage on the ISS for the Hubble documentary, using IMAX cameras to give viewers a close-up and realistic look at what goes into the process of repairing the telescope. “A lot of our training is what we call Photo TV training,” the astronaut said. “And that’s just to share the experience with the rest of the world to get documentation of the planet.”
Massimino envisions a future where more people with special, non-astronaut skills — like filming — are trained for missions. “Hopefully we’ll get better movies out of it, and better entertainment … that’s what I’m hoping for,” he said.
But a typical Earthly film crew can’t be recreated in space. The ISS is narrow and cramped; it wasn’t built with big cameras in mind. “You can’t have a whole crew. You’re not going to be able to launch 50 people to the space station,” said Massimino.
That said, the space station started construction in 1998 and since then, advancements in camera technology and a reduction in barriers to space travel have broadened the scope of what is possible on the station. “Years ago, this really wasn’t an option. There really wasn’t any opportunity for people to do this, for people to participate in so many different ways … And it’s not just NASA astronauts. So that’s why I think we’re seeing a lot more interest because more people are able to participate,” Massimino added.
“Who Wants to Be an Astronaut” is entirely U.S. based, but “Space Hero” is attempting to bring a global component to the TV-in-space sector. Creators Deborah Sass and Thomas Reemer, hailing from England and Berlin respectively, have been business partners for years, and they have a plan to make sure that space travel isn’t limited to countries that already have a stake in the ISS.
The privately-funded “Space Hero” plans to start with 24 contestants from around the world. “Twelve men and twelve women, twelve from underdeveloped countries and twelve from developed countries,” says Sass. “And they will be put into a Space Village, kind of like the Big Brother house, but with wearable technology and biometrics testing.”
While in the ‘Space Hero’ house, activities and challenges will narrow down the list of candidates until only one person remains. Naturally, the global audience will be encouraged to vote for their favorite would-be astronaut. Reemer, the co-executive producer on the project, projects that the demand for an astronaut from lesser-known countries is there: “There is Nigeria with two hundred million inhabitants, never had an astronaut. That’s where the hunger comes from. India, the last astronaut from India was 1985… It means something to be the first astronaut of your country.”
Traveling beyond the ISS, with the participation of multiple countries seems like a moonshot right now, but the minds behind the global reality show have already started reaching across borders to foster relationships with other space agencies. Space Hero claims that multiple agreements have already been forged internationally, along with already securing a seat for space passage with Axiom Space, slated for early 2023.
NASA is seemingly on board with the expansion of uses for the ISS. Former Senator Bill Nelson, who was recently sworn in as NASA administrator, is open to different uses outside routine research.
“As we go into space, we want to encourage entrepreneurs to do new things. And to utilize the extraordinary zero G of space to do all kinds of science, as well as entertainment,” he said.
But will these out-of-this-world shows ever arrive on your screens? Maybe. Regulatory hurdles will create some difficulty. In 2019, NASA stated that it would be open and able to handle two space tourism missions per year, but NASA guidelines and regulations require those missions to use a U.S. spacecraft. That complicates timing, as private and public companies vie for the sought-after spots.
“Who Wants to Be an Astronaut” is now currently taking applications through its online portal. Space Hero’s application will open on December 21st, 2021.