Mission to Mars reveals some down-to-earth problems
Jingan Young says the very idea of a reality TV show featuring contestants battling to join a one-way trip to Mars tells us much about life on earth
Last week, it was announced that 25-year-old Hong Kong-born Birdy Cheng Yu-pang had acquired a place on the Mars One project, a one-way expedition to establish a "self-sustaining colony" by 2025 on the red planet. Given Cheng's belief that planet earth is polluted and hopeless, does this mission to Mars suggest a widely shared dissatisfaction with life?
Watch: Birdy Cheng on why he wants to live on Mars
Based in the Netherlands, the ambitious "non-profit" organisation Mars One has attracted over 200,000 applications from all over the world since it began its search for recruits last year. The ethos - to "captivate and inspire generations" - may be worthy, but the idea behind the project recalls the David Bowie song Life on Mars?, whose lyrics, including "It's the freakiest show", appear to ring true.
The selection has been whittled down to 1,058 women and men who will move on to the next two phases of the process, which include both a medical "strength and weakness" test as well as a series of group challenges. These teams will then compete against one another to make the final cut.
Does any of that sound familiar?
Last year, The New York Times ran a story on the Mars One project. Its founder and "executive producer" is Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch engineer who managed to raise the funding needed to get the inaugural landing crew there in 2023 by proposing a reality TV show. A "space race" between men and women would be broadcast internationally as a "multiyear reality television show".
Inspired by TV's Big Brother and The Amazing Race, the show will feature a gruelling training regime, and participants will also undergo public humiliation - the audience will get the opportunity to "vote" for who they think should go to Mars.
So is this just a clever public relations stunt, or a dire commentary on society's failures?
Among the interviews with selected Mars One hopefuls (the majority of whom seem to be under 30 and from the US and Canada), there appears to be a commonly shared view in their decision to exit earth. Yes, many said they hope to provide humanity with knowledge or "significant research". But many also appear desperate to escape their humdrum lives.
When it was reported that Ken Sullivan, a married father of four from Utah, was among the successful applicants, the media took full advantage in reporting his wife's threat of divorce. Sullivan, for his part, said he hoped his family could forgive him down the road for pursuing a selfish dream.
Meanwhile, one applicant, Junwei Cheng, a 26-year-old resident of Taiyuan city, said it was an easy decision for him as he hadn't had a girlfriend "for a while". Interestingly, organiser Lansdorp is in a relationship and will not be joining them.
Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate how we live our lives here on earth. Have we lost the ability to communicate with each other if it seems escaping to another planet is the only answer? The mere fact this is an "event" makes it more alarming - is creating such a spectacle the only way to legitimise individuals seeking to exile themselves forever on a planet that is, as yet, uninhabitable? And who are we to decide who is "worthy" of a trip to the "final frontier"?
Jingan Young is a freelance writer and the first playwright commissioned to write in English for the 2014 Hong Kong Arts Festival