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Discovery unveils reality TV contest for space trip

More than 20 years after TV executives first floated the idea of doing a “Survivor”-style series with a trip to space as the reward, it looks as if such a show might actually happen as early as next year.

The eight-part series’ working title is “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” It’s slated to air on the Discovery TV channel, with bonus content on the Science Channel and the discovery+ streaming service.

Discovery put out the casting call today, and you can sign up to vie for a spot on the show — that is, assuming that you’re a U.S. citizen who’s 18 or older and in good enough shape to endure the rigors of spaceflight. Applicants will have to answer a questionnaire and submit photos and a short video as part of the screening process. If you go on to the next stage, you’ll have to undergo a background check as well as psychological and physical exams.

Contestants will be put through astronaut-style training and a variety of extreme challenges. In the end, expert judges will select one candidate to take a ride on a SpaceX Crew Dragon and spend eight days on the International Space Station as part of an Axiom Space mission.

Houston-based Axiom Space recently sealed the deal with NASA for its first private astronaut mission, known as Ax-1, and Discovery says it expects the reality-TV trip to be part of Ax-2.

SpaceX’s ability to fly people on its commercial Crew Dragon space taxi, added to Axiom Space’s ability to give paying passengers access to the space station, is opening up new possibilities for space-based media projects. The Russians are following a parallel course with their Soyuz spacecraft: Just last week, the Russian space agency set the stage for filming scenes for a thriller in orbit this October.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for space storytelling that gives us an opportunity to see the Earth from a vantage point few have ever experienced,” Scott Lewers, an executive vice president at Discovery, said in a news release. “It is truly the next frontier for those who not only dream of traveling into space, but are also curious about the mysteries of the universe. We are looking forward to taking our audience on this unprecedented journey.”

Producers have been trying to put the pieces together for a space-themed reality-TV show since 2000, when “Survivor” mastermind Mark Burnett had a deal with NBC for a series called “Destination Mir.” Plans for that show broke apart with Russia’s Mir space station in 2001, but the concept kept coming up.

Last year, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa unveiled a space-themed matchmaking show — but backed off almost immediately. (Now he’s conducting a somewhat less romantic campaign to seek crewmates for a round-the-moon trip taking place as early as 2023.)

The creators of another reality-TV project, known as “Space Hero,” laid out a plan very much like Discovery’s last September, right down to the potential deal with Axiom Space. The backers of “Space Hero” haven’t yet announced a TV partner for the project. Nevertheless, they insist that they’re kicking off the competition at the end of this year and are targeting the first flight for 2023.

The fact that Discovery is going ahead with a casting call and scheduling the series for next year suggests that “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” is leading the reality-TV space race. The other companies involved in the project, including Boat Rocker Studios, Matador Content and BoomTown Content, seem to have the production experience to get the job done, adding to favorable odds.

But it’s possible that more than one space TV project will cross the finish line and make it on air. Who knows? Someday there might even be a TV show tracking settlers’ one-way trips to Mars, as the organizers of the now-bankrupt “Mars One” project proposed back in 2013.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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