There are some things to be said in favour of the planet Mars. Its atmosphere contains almost no oxygen, the temperature in winter reaches minus 143˚C, it is exceptionally arid and dusty, and any human travelling to the place would receive sufficient solar radiation to be lit up like a Russian dissident. My problem with the place, though, is that it is only 33 million miles distant. It is altogether too close for comfort, virtually a stone’s throw away. Mercury, I think, or better still Pluto, would be far more fun. On Mercury, incineration would be instantaneous. However it is Pluto that really fits the bill. It is three billion miles away, roughly — and bracingly chilly, a little like Hull in January. And also airless and bleak and devoid of light. Perfect. In deep space, nobody can you hear from the Diary Room.
I suppose it had to happen. A Dutch tv company is planning to set a reality tv programme on Mars, with the first imbeciles due to land in 2023, having undergone ten years of what the programme makers call intensive training. The Dutch, remember, are sort of reality tv pioneers, ahead of the game and cutting edge. No country in the world has their track record of shovelling shit into your living room. They gave us Big Brother, for example, for which many thanks.
Their proposed ‘Mars One’ reality show will cost six billion quid, which they expect (probably rightly) to raise from private finance. In the first million or so episodes, viewers would get to see the contestants training, then, after a decade, they’d witness the lucky four being blasted off into space for the seven-month journey. The dupes would then live the rest of their lives in pods on the surface of our second-nearest planetary neighbour, growing food and, I daresay, shagging one another and having hysterical outbursts to the remote cameras. There would be no coming back, no jabbering Davina Mc-
Call welcoming them back into the real world: the show’s developers have made it clear that this would be a one-way ticket and the monkeys would have to live the rest of their lives on Mars. I don’t suppose that this will be very much of a disincentive to the sorts of people who queue up to appear on reality tv shows. You could tell them it involved having their heads permanently separated from their bodies by a guillotine and stuck on top of a pole and they would still clamour to be the first in line; so long as they’re on the box, they won’t mind being in a box.
You might have hoped that the first people to colonise extraterrestrial planets would be brave and clever astronauts, or brilliant scientists, or perhaps exceptional people who have fought, during their earthly lives, for peace and justice and equality, such as the boss of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti. But instead it looks very much like it will be fantastically irritating exhibitionists with the collective IQ of a small sachet of lunar dust. Calum Best, the late Jade Goody, Imogen Thomas, Danielle Lloyd, George Galloway — these sorts of people will be our gift to the universe. I have long suspected that there is not much in the way of life anywhere beyond our atmosphere, despite the statistical evidence to the contrary. But I am now hoping that Mars has, somewhere beneath its surface, hordes of really unpleasant creatures, such as giant nematode worms which squirt concentrated sulphuric acid out of bristly little excrescences on the tops of their heads, and possessing the mindset of the Taleban. That would make for good, if brief, viewing.
Strangely, few of the newspaper reports about this berserk idea have dealt with the ethics of the venture. It is surely highly likely that all of the contestants would be killed due to some terrible malfunction, or the sudden appearance of the jihadi nematode worms. But this probability has received only the scantest consideration, possibly because the journalists who wrote up the reports were all science hacks and thus devoid of a sense of humanity. Indeed, the science pundits asked to comment on the venture have been cautiously excited, presumably because they realise that in these straitened times, and with our obsessive concerns regarding health and safety, a manned flight to Mars by genuinely sentient people and funded by central government is pretty much an impossibility. So if not Nasa and the astronauts, let’s leave it to the international community of chavs.
Right now, the module ‘Curiosity’, from Nasa’s jet propulsion lab, is dozing on the surface of the red planet having received a ‘brain transplant’ to enable it to poke around in the cinnamon dust, desperately seeking evidence of life, or former life, or water, or something. President Obama has instructed Nasa to ring him as soon as they have found a martian, which makes me suspect that he is of a similar opinion to myself when it comes to extraterrestrial life. Also, he’s a Democrat, of course, and these days Democrats are even less interested in the gung-ho exploration of space than are the Republicans. Of course, it was once the other way around.
Mars has always let us down. There are no canals or vast oceans teeming with life, as was once believed. Nor are Martians signalling to us using giant mirrors as one British scientist once fondly imagined. There is nothing there; it is barren, lifeless and dull. But for a few more years yet it still possesses a certain dignity and integrity — until the Dutch get their mitts on it.