I can’t believe I wrote this.

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By some accounts the first Mission to Mars was a complete disaster, by others a roaring success. The television networks in particular viewed the mission as NASA’s finest hour.

The first indication of trouble presented itself when the mission was a mere fantasy in the minds of spaceflight enthusiasts; like a bloodthirsty serial killer wielding a proverbial machete, Congress saw fit to slash the agency’s budget in half. Desperate to make up for the shortfall, NASA turned to…alternative sources of income. Namely, the Media. The rights to the mission were sold to the highest bidder. After much deliberation, competition, and assassination, the networks finally agreed to split the costs and share the profits. Thus, construction on a ship capable of transporting a crew to Mars was soon underway.

Fifteen years later, everything was ready for the premiere. In preparation for the ceremony, a glorious red velvet carpet stretched between the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pad. Reporters, photographers and fans lined the barrier hoping to catch a glimpse, each wanting to say they were there. An excited, tension filled buzz permeated the atmosphere.

First down the red causeway were the Space Agency’s most talented, most courageous, and most determined astronauts. The crew embarking on this voyage consisted of five persons, three men and two women. Astronaut Arnold Strong would be the Commander of this outfit. Pilot Jessica Lovelace and Flight Engineer “Tricky” Ricky Dunk would assist him as the flight crew. Mission specialists, Dr. Henry Bohrs and Dr. Amanda Virgil had also volunteered to join this adventure.

On previous missions, astronauts were fully equipped with their bulky and frankly unflattering space getup. Not this time. The men emerged donning elegant tuxedos while the two women wore rich, flowing gowns and jewels glittering like starlight.

The multitudes greeted their heroes with an ear-splitting scream and a blinding series of flashes. They proceeded gradually shaking hands, making small talk, and posing for the magazines the entire length. They made their way towards the VIP stands alongside the President and the billionaires and took their places.

Then, a rumble. The great doors were opening! The guest of honor had arrived. All eyes gazed anxiously at the building. Slowly, almost unbearably so, the gates screeched open and there loomed the mighty monolith. Equipped with the latest technology and adorned with the logos of multiple companies, this ark would ensure the safety, comfort, and wellbeing of the crew on their two-year quest. For hours, it treaded the length of the red carpet, stealing the show. It was the largest and most advanced machine humans had ever constructed. The media proclaimed it a tribute to the ingenuity of man, a fitting monument to humanity. Seeing the rocket stand erect on the launch pad, no man could help but swell with pride.

But it takes two to tango, and this masterpiece wouldn’t fly itself. No, a human crew would have to remain at the helm. And with humans comes human error. 

Millions watched the launch. The video topped all the blogs and social media sites. The world tracked the ship’s progress for days, eager to observe the crew in their daily routine. Ratings were at an all time high. Yet, too many good days passed. All Quiet on the Space Front does not exactly inspire much interest or a loyal following. The media allowed more access to the astronauts, more interviews, more insight to their hopes and dreams and lives. Despite everything, the corporate executives could only watch helplessly as the ratings dropped faster than a rock in Earth’s gravity. The audience was bored. Even the crew was bored. Something would have to be done.  

The executives gathered in an emergency conference to decide on a course of action. Eventually, they decided to engineer a crisis. Nothing attracted humans like mayhem and madness, danger and disaster. Why else would traffic slow down when coming upon a gruesome car crash? Because society loves it. But how to accomplish that? 

Some advocated an Apollo 13 strategy: sabotage the ship, present a survival scenario. In the end, this course of action was dismissed. After an initial burst of interest, attentions would again wane. It was the same with war. After the initial invasion, explosions, death and gore the conflict would drift off into the background. Just another routine the world performed. Besides the insurance premiums would be murderous.

Silence.

Then, a voice spoke up. “Perhaps a human crisis?” Some murmurs followed, interest piqued but still skeptical. The speaker continued, “Let’s turn this mission into the first space reality show. People love that stuff. Stupid people acting stupid, or in this case smart people acting stupid. The public just eats it up.”

Still no response.

“Look. We’ve got five very bored men and women stuck together in a tin can for months at a time. Sure, they’re acting professional right now, but before long their proximity to each other will drive them insane. All we have to do is foster an environment to help this natural process along.”

 The next day an advertisement aired on all stations proclaiming the premiere of a new show “Capsule Fever” with the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Thus, was launched the most popular reality TV show in human history.

Each member of the crew was designated with a new title. Commander Strong became the Jock, Pilot Lovelace the Slut, Flight Engineer Dunk the Fool, Dr. Bohrs the Nerd, and Dr. Virgil the Virgin.

Some of the producers protested. “They’re all nerds!” Which was true, though they eventually agreed that presentation not truth was everything.

Tensions grew within the capsule. Never able to truly escape each other’s presence, the desire for privacy reared its ugly animal head, along with other animal instincts. A love triangle between Commander Strong, Pilot Lovelace, and Engineer Dunk was fostered. At one point, Dunk even tried to eject Strong out the airlock, or so it seemed to viewers on Earth.

Speculation ran rampant. Who would get the girl? Will Dunk murder Strong before the end of the voyage. Will Bohrs and Virgil get it on already? And, by the way, how would one perform various techniques in zero gravity?

At one point, sick of tasteless freeze dried cuisine, Dunk and Dr. Bohrs managed to construct a still. The resulting drunken antics astounded even the most hardened viewers. That episode ended with a sobering note when the crew in their uninhibited state of mind revealed their fear and loneliness, confessing their disgust for the stereotypes forced upon them.     

Several months and trials later, the traumatized crew finally reached the Martian orbit. Wonder, laughter and tears. Each of them hugged the other. In that moment all the frustration and anger towards each other evaporated.

Of course a whole new problem presented itself. Who would actually step foot on the planet and who would remain on board to rendezvous later. Commander Strong seeing an opportunity volunteered to stay behind with Pilot Lovelace while Flight Engineer Dunk escorted the mission specialists to the surface. It was a smooth move. In an interview later on Strong would admit that he contemplated abandoning the three while he and Lovelace enjoyed a year of alone together. Luckily, he overcame that temptation.

Bets were placed on who would be the first to actually step foot on the planet. In the end, Dr. Amanda Virgil under the doctrine of Ladies First claimed that honor followed by Dr. Bohrs. Tricky Ricky claimed the honor of the first face plant though. His boot caught on a rung and unused to gravity after months of space flight, he lost his balance.

Mars actually offered a blessed return to normalcy for the crew. After all the drama and boredom and claustrophobia, they had a wide-open space and a job to perform. The networks were surprised that the Mars episode they had so carefully promoted ended with disappointing ratings. The most common complaint, “Nothing happened!”

In the end, the crew completed their tasks and returned to the spaceship without incident. Unlike horror movies, this band of heroes returned safely to Earth…well, mostly. There are some mental scars that time cannot heal, some images that cannot be erased.

On a side note, “Capsule Fever” was renewed for a second season.   

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