A new space race is on following the announcement by furniture giant Ikea that they intend to put a sofa on the surface of Mars by the end of the decade.
Ikea - which in the last few years has risen to become one of the leading suppliers of traditional earthbound home furnishings - has already achieved the enviable goal of being the first retailer to put furniture in space when it recently launched an armchair into a geo-stationary orbit over Tanzania. The chair, a traditional paisley-patterned recliner, spent two months in orbit before causing a spectacular display as it returned to earth, burning up on re-entry and hitting a postman in Dulwich. Nevertheless, putting furniture on Mars is a rather more ambitious project and so Ikea have enlisted top scientific know-how in the form of TV science show front man Peter Snow and snaggle-toothed maths guru Carol Vorderman.
"This drastically improves our chances of success," says Brian Harvey, ex-lead singer with teen sensation East 17 and currently Ikea's Aeronautics expert and Head of Kitchen Fittings. "We now have a powerhouse team behind our effort. Carol has been busy working out the various fuel to weight ratios and navigational vectors necessary to get a sofa from Earth to Mars, and enable it to touch down safely, whilst Peter has designed the cushions."
There has been much speculation about exactly why Ikea should want to land a sofa on Mars. Most analysts agree that they would be better to invest in increasing their market share here on Earth before expanding into an extra-terrestrial arena. However, Ikea are keen to emphasise that this is not a purely commercial decision.
To infinity and beyond: Ikea's first attempt to put a kitchen chair in space, IK1,ended in tragedy when it exploded on the launch pad.
"We see it as a means to expand the frontiers of science, an invaluable contribution to the further exploration of our solar system," Harvey explains. "It is inconceivable that the human race will forever be confined to this tiny planet we call Earth. One day - perhaps in the not too distant future - man will finally set foot on Mars. It will be an incredible undertaking, a monumental achievement. The journey will be a difficult one, fraught with danger. The astronauts will have to spend months inside a cramped capsule, living on protein supplements and constantly exposed to cosmic radiation. We want to make sure that when they finally touch down on that strange alien world and step out for the first time onto the Martian soil, they will have somewhere comfy to sit down."
More cynical commentators might claim that this is nothing more than a publicity ploy. There is certainly no doubt that Ikea's profile has suffered no harm from the announcement, its shares having tripled in value since the news broke. The confidence of the firm's investors seems well placed if Ikea's past record is anything to go by. Their previous projects have seen them successfully airlift a kitchen cabinet to Cuba, drag a desk to the North Pole and balance an ottoman on Mount Everest.
One of the most exciting projects currently underway involves the construction of a massive permanent manned station in space. Exciting not only because it will be constructed entirely of self-assembly furniture, but also because it involves the co-operation of a number a different nations.
The main body of the station, where the astronauts will live and work, is to be constructed of a special heat-resistant plywood and based on a Swedish wardrobe design. Three aluminium coffee tables from the US will generate the solar power necessary to operate the station and a decorative headboard from Germany has been added to provide orbital stability.
Meanwhile China, which has recently stepped up its own space programme, is planning to put its own space station in orbit, which will boast twice the capacity, a nuclear powered death ray and stronger glue.
However, this time Ikea may find that their efforts are in danger of being eclipsed by rival retailer MFI, who are pouring all their resources into sending a dressing table to Venus.
"We think we have an excellent chance of success," says press officer Luke Goss, who first rose to fame in the '80s with his band 'Bros'. "The dressing table will be launched as a flat-pack from a secret nuclear powered underwater facility somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Once it reaches the outer atmosphere it will jettison its outer packaging and two photoelectric mirrors will unfold. These mirrors will provide electrical power for its journey to Venus, which should take no more than 28 days."
So far, MFI have already signed up 70s children's presenter Johnny Ball to mastermind their project, and are currently in negotiation with TV gardening whore Charlie Dimmock, whom they hope will give them an important edge over their competition.
"There are strong indications," Goss tells us, "that we could find free flowing water on the surface of Venus. This being the case, a water feature is a distinct possibility."
The Russian Soyuz 4 freestanding wardrobe has spent a record-breaking 182 months in space, comes in three different finishes and can be assembled in a matter of minutes using just a Phillips screwdriver.
Water feature or not, it looks like MFI's attempt might stand the better chance, if the rumours are anything to go by. The word from the stock exchange is that MFI's team comprises several ex-members of the NASA team who worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative. SDI, or 'Star Wars' as it is better known, was the American military's attempt to place a network of furniture in orbit which would be capable of intercepting foreign missile attacks. The scheme was only a partial success, with only a handful of ion-powered dining chairs and a fission-drive wardrobe being launched. Whilst these could easily destroy an incoming bookcase or dining table before it had chance to do any harm, they could offer no defence against a fleet of laser-guided coffee tables.
Nevertheless, the technology would be invaluable to MFI and could well make all the difference. Right now, it's too close to call. What we can say for certain is that the benefits to the successful company will be considerable. And whoever wins, we will never look at self-assembly furniture in the same light again.
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