"Deep Space Homer," a beloved episode of The Simpsons, featured a cash-strapped NASA boosting public interest in the space program by sending ordinary American Homer Simpson into orbit. Turns out, the smart-about-science cartoon was prescient about space travel.
Legendary television producer Mark Burnett is teaming up with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic for a new reality show where ordinary Americans compete to fly into space. On NBC's upcoming Space Race, which still doesn't have air or film dates, the winner's grand prize will be a trip into space courtesy of Virgin.
George Whitesides is bullish on a future where space tourism is a fact of life. The CEO of Virgin Galactic and the son of a legendary scientist, Whitesides helms a company whose business plan centers on short trips into space at $250,000 a pop. At a recent presentation at TEDxWallStreet, Whitesides was selling a crowd—many of whom can afford (or have bosses who can afford) to pay the ticket fee for short suborbital space flights—on the virtues of traveling into space. It was an easy sell: the audience was full of science aficionados and thrill junkies who raised their hands eagerly when asked if they'd like to go into space. Virgin Galactic's mission is to make space tourism affordable and doable, and a reality show is just the sort of advertisement they like.
Space Race will prominently feature Spaceport America, a massive civilian spaceport and research aircraft facility in the New Mexican desert. Virgin Galactic will use Spaceport as its headquarters; Whitesides told Fast Company in a telephone interview that the company is still putting the finishing touches on the facility and conducting work on its test-flight program. By the time Virgin Galactic flies tourists into space, Burnett's reality show may be able to start taping.
"Burnett's partnership really opens the aperture on allowing different kinds of people to do space travel," Whitesides said. "There are some moments that are historic in television, space, and human history. The principle for Space Race is to show space travel for everyday people coming from all walks of life." Space Race is the second attempt by Burnett to do a space tourism reality show; a similar 2000 program called Destination Mir was shuttered when Mir came down from orbit due to Russian financial difficulties.
When conducting marketing and public relations, Virgin's pitch comes down to one thing: The life-changing effects of seeing Earth from space. "99.999% of people on Earth can't afford to fly into space the way NASA does. We've taken that experience and dropped the price between 100 and 1,000 times," Whitesides added. "For $250,000, it's an enormous price drop which allows many more people to afford that. Tens of thousands of people can look down from space, have a truly profound experience, and look at the Earth from the black sky."
Burnett, the television legend responsible for genre-defining reality hits like Survivor, The Apprentice, Shark Tank, and many others, knows what makes compelling viewing. But he is a television producer and Virgin Galactic, even with Richard Branson's pedigree and brand name, is a company working in an expensive and dangerous industry where one instance of equipment failure can cause a financial or public relations meltdown. Virgin Galactic recently delayed its first space flights by six months, causing the $212 million Spaceport America considerable financial difficulties. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield also noted (in comments which Whitesides, a friend of Hadfield, said were taken out of context) that "eventually they'll crash" one of their spacecrafts. Virgin Galactic is currently the biggest name in the small world of space tourism, and this makes publicity all the more challenging.
While NBC's space travel reality show waits to begin taping, more than 650 customers have paid $250,000 apiece to book flights into space on Virgin's SpaceShipTwo, to briefly experience weightlessness and see Earth from a suborbital vehicle.