Mark Burnett hasn't given up on his space dreams. According to multiple sources, Burnett is pitching a show to networks that would send the winner on one of Virgin Galactic's first suborbital space flights.
Insiders say a bidding war among several networks is already underway for the project, which would give an ordinary citizen the chance to fly into space. The winner would take off on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo from Spaceport America in New Mexico — perhaps as soon as next year.
Billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic as part of his Virgin Group, has already said he plans to be on the first flight, with his family, on Dec. 25 this year. The Burnett show is then expected to pit contestants against each other for a chance at a seat on the second flight.
Tom Hanks, Ashton Kutcher, Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are among the more than 600 people who have already signed up for a Virgin Galactic flight, which cost $250,000 per seat. That price tag puts a commercial space flight out of reach for most people — which is part of the idea behind the Burnett show.
The Virgin Galactic space rides are expected to last around two hours and take passengers up 62 miles above Earth. They'll experience weightlessness and witness the Earth's curve. Virgin Galactic has said that the company's first flights will only come after the passengers' safety is secured. A start date for flights has been pushed back several times, now with a 2014 target.
Burnett uncharacteristically declined comment. But it's no secret that the tenacious producer has long hoped to mount a reality show about space, going back to 2000, when he first sold the show Destination Mir to NBC. At the time, the Peacock network agreed to pay Burnett between $35 million and $40 million for Destination Mir, which included the nearly $20 million that Burnett agreed to pay MirCorp — the company that held the lease to Mir.
Destination Mir was planned for the 2001-02 TV season, and would have followed a group of Americans as they underwent cosmonaut training at Russia's Star City compound and competed, Survivor-style, for a chance to be sent in a rocket to the former Russian space station. The finale would culminate with the live broadcast of the winner's launch in a Soyuz capsule to Mir.
It wasn't meant to be, however. The aging space station was brought down in 2001. Burnett tried again a few years later with the renamed Destination: Space, partnering with the Russian Space Agency and a Russian TV network on a show that would have put someone aboard a Soyuz mission to the International Space Station. But the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster turned U.S. networks off the idea.
Separately, in 2002 'N Sync band member Lance Bass famously took flight training in order to board a Russian rocket to the International Space Station. Bass and Destiny Productions hoped to raise the $20 million fee via sponsors and a network deal to chronicle his journey on a reality show. But Moscow nixed the trip when Bass and Destiny failed to come up with the money. Producer Phil Gurin (Oh Sit!) also tried to send someone into space via The Big Mission, which was based on a Swedish TV format.
The early 2000s race to mount a space-themed reality show came as American businessman Dennis Tito signed up to become the world's first "space tourist," paying $20 million to spend nearly eight days in orbit via a Russian mission to the International Space Station.