“No ‘Big Brother’ on Mars”: Darlow Smithson to televise the Mars One selection process


We now know that Darlow Smithson Productions will be responsible for generating the TV and internet media broadcasts of the Mars One selection process. This news is official (press releases: Mars One | DSP; articles in the media press here and here), and supersedes preliminary reports from last month suggesting that Lionsgate would be attached to the project.

Darlow Smithson, which will be Mars One’s exclusive worldwide production partner, specializes in ‘factual production’, i.e., documentaries and reality TV. The company’s resumé includes several forays into programming focused on space exploration (Earth From Space, Neil Armstrong: First Man on the Moon, Finding Life Beyond Earth) and  science and technology more generally (Hawking and the more populist Smash Lab). DSP’s parent company, Endemol, is the mammoth conglomerate responsible at some level for perpetrating long-running harbinger of the apocalypse Big Brother, prompting concern from multiple quarters regarding the tone of the planned production. As I wrote previously (prior to this announcement):

UnknownI’m not convinced that a population of high-strung physical beauties is likely to be enriched for the skills needed to ensure the success of the mission. There is a significant tension between what makes for good television and what would make for rigorous selection and training of literal astronauts planning to risk their literal lives. …

Reality TV has reimagined Lord of the Flies, explored the petty depravity of rats in a cage, and invited us time and again to jeer at the antics of moral imbeciles, but it has very rarely explored the quiet victories of humans at our best.

This concern was widespread (and, I daresay, reasonable) enough that Mars One  included the following reassurance in an email announcement it sent directly to the candidates:

UnknownNo Big Brother on Mars please
We feel it is important to report on humanity’s next giant leap in an inspiring way, sharing the story with the world. Bas Lansdorp, Co-founder & CEO of Mars One said, “Our team felt all along that we needed a partner whose strength lies in factual storytelling to an international audience. DSP will provide that to Mars One, while allowing our selection committee to maintain control of the astronaut selection process.”

The implication is that although Mars One and DSP will televise the selection process in an unscripted-drama format, they intend to create a production of a fundamentally different kind than we’ve ever seen before, consistent with the unprecedented nature of the project. For the record, I believe that their intentions are good and their statements genuine, and (based on my review of their past work and my vast experience in such matters) I think DSP sounds like a good choice. I’m looking forward to seeing the results, possibly as early as 2015–and hopefully including me.

(In any case, Endemol is a conglomerate of some 90 companies, so it would be more than a little unfair to declare Darlow Smithson guilty by association. From what I can tell, DSP is committed to making truly educational TV, and the reality offerings in their stable appear to have genuine integrity [e.g.]. At the end of the day, it’s hard not to like a house that has produced three separate shows about Stephen Hawking.)

Now for the six-billion-dollar question: What will this selection process entail? According to an earlier communication with the candidates, the next step in this process will be a round of interviews in which candidates will hope to demonstrate their “knowledge, intelligence, adaptability and personality” (and, presumably, telegenicity). Details of the interview process are scarce, but it is clear that at this stage we will be competing primarily against candidates from our own geographical regions. From there, it appears that the selection will become significantly more involved:

UnknownIn order to qualify for the mission, each individual must demonstrate that they have acquired the intricate knowledge and skills as well as the high levels of psychological and physical performance needed for the most long distance voyage humankind has ever embarked upon. (source)

In a conventional interview, It is difficult to carefully evaluate deep knowledge, and probably impossible to meaningfully assess the ability to perform psychologically and physically. Therefore, my best guess is that early interviews of the usual sort (either live or mediated by Internet video chat) will eliminate some percentage of the remaining 706 aspirants, after which the remaining candidates will  be invited to participate in activities that showcase their ability to rapidly learn complex bodies of knowledge, apply their knowledge practically under demanding conditions, and prove that they can tolerate physical and psychological stress.

I, for one, think that will make for some excellent viewing.

Talking about Mars One on “This Week in Science”

Last week, my friend Kirsten Sanford (aka @drkiki) invited me to talk about Mars One with the lovable lunatics at This Week in Science, “a weekly hour-long web and radio show presenting an humorous, often opinionated, and irreverent look at the week in science and technology”.

Check, check, and check — we had a great time and more than a few laughs discussing Mars One, Mars exploration in general, and a variety of related topics, including what the heck you call the gangway that the astronauts walked in “The Right Stuff”. Many thanks to Kiki, Justin, and Blair for a delightful evening.

The show itself ran more than an hour, and the Mars section itself is around 45 minutes long, so I cued up the video below to start right before we dive into the conversation about Mars (if that isn’t working, you can either scan ahead to 47 min 30 sec or just click here). The length is a good thing, especially for those of you who have asked for a more in-depth discussion—unlike the short WBZ interview that ran the previous week, we do a much better job of explaining some of the broader justifications and finer details of the project.


If you like what you see, I encourage you to view the whole show and consider checking out their other episodes. TWiS is live (on video) every Thursday at 8 PM Pacific time, and if you can’t catch the live broadcast, they have a YouTube channel and a podcast.

ERRATUM: During the interview I got something wrong about the Hohmann transfer orbit from Earth to Mars: the launch from Earth does not happen at perigee (when Earth is closest to the sun). My statement to the contrary was based on an old, unexamined misunderstanding (which I am now grateful for the opportunity to have examined). Obviously, if the launch window opens every 26 months, it can’t be the case that Earth’s position relative to the sun is always the same. Instead, the relevant parameters are the relative positions of Earth and Mars. For a better explanation of the orbital mechanics involved in determining Earth–Mars trajectories and launch windows, see here and here.

Fifteen seconds of fame: CBS Boston interview

Here are my first TV appearances as a Mars One candidate: excerpts from an interview with WBZ, preceded by  a promo spot that ran for a couple of days before the feature was broadcast. Hot tip: you must see the end of the main feature; the anchor says something priceless. Ladies, please form an orderly line.

Destination Mars (promo)

Two Somerville Residents On Short List For One-Way Trip To Mars

Talking on camera was not entirely new to me, but this was the first time that I spoke at length (more than 30 minutes) knowing that very little of what I said would actually be broadcast. I got some good advice from a friend in the TV news business about trying to speak in short, pithy sentences—rather than whole paragraphs, which is how I usually talk. I think I got a few good points across, and overall the experience was quite enjoyable.

I’m hoping for more opportunities to spread the word about Mars One in the coming weeks. Next stop will be the This Week in Science webcast — tonight!

Mars One may partner with Lionsgate TV on a reality show


As I’ve written before, the Mars One Project intends to obtain some of its funding by licensing the media rights to broadcast the selection and training process. A few weeks ago, the news broke that Mars One and Lionsgate Television (WP) were negotiating the terms of a partnership aimed at producing a reality TV show (q.v. here and here). The scoop was premature: initially CEO Bas Landsdorp denied that a deal had been struck, but then acknowledged that negotiations were underway.

To the best of our knowledge, however, no contract has yet been signed. (Consistent with this, Lionsgate TV has not yet issued a press release on the matter). Thus, even if everything we know so far about the possibility of a deal is true, we should keep in mind that there’s no deal yet.

Due to the preliminary nature of this news, reliable details are scarce. One oft-repeated claim has it that Lionsgate or the network partner that eventually broadcasts the show will perform its own new search for participants, ultimately merging the new crop with the existing candidate pool identified last year by Mars One.

This could be good news or bad news: On the good side, the original applicant pool was just over 200,000, sizable but still only tiny fraction of potentially qualified humans; a second search with serious marketing muscle behind it could reach a much larger percentage of the best candidates for the mission. On the other hand, we already know something about how  companies select talent for reality TV. I’m not convinced that a population of high-strung physical beauties is likely to be enriched for the skills needed to ensure the success of the mission.

There is a significant tension between what makes for good television and what would make for rigorous selection and training of literal astronauts planning to risk their literal lives. When preparations for an off-planet mission are going well, they aren’t (and shouldn’t be) “dramatic” in the way that holds viewers’ attention in what one source breathlessly called the “red-hot social experiment genre”. (There’s a reason why Ron Howard didn’t make his film about Apollo 11.) 

Reality TV has reimagined Lord of the Flies, explored the petty depravity of rats in a cage, and invited us time and again to jeer at the antics of moral imbeciles, but it has very rarely explored the quiet victories of humans at our best.

These concerns have led others to criticize the proposed partnership, with one Mars One candidate decrying what she sees as potentially descending into  a “lowbrow media circus”, and one entertainment reporter speculating, in essence, that the risks are simply too great to be prudently assessed:


While the series has yet to be given a title, we’re pretty sure for the first few seasons at least it will just be referred to as “that reality show were all those poor people died on the way to Mars.”

For now, I’m reserving judgment. We don’t yet know how the corporate partners will pursue additional searches, how they will seek to weigh in on the training and selection process, or even what the format of the reality show will ultimately be. This is new ground: the timescale is very long compared to other unscripted series (10 years at least, and that’s just the preamble on Earth), and the goals are unprecedented; old templates may not apply. Perhaps Hollywood and Madison Avenue will surprise us.

In the meantime, I remain cautiously optimistic. I’m glad that the media plan appears to be moving forward, and I’m eager to see what happens next.

P.S.: Stipulating that Lionsgate becomes the media partner, which network might broadcast the resultant reality show? Yesterday, fellow candidate Bill Dunlap pointed out to me that CBS has been covering Mars One more intensively than the other networks, leading me to do a bit of poking around on my own. I found nothing definitive, but it may be relevant that last month CBS and Lionsgate entered a distribution partnership, and Bas Landsdorp recently appeared on CBS’s This Morning