Published online 18 November 2005 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news051114-14


Space cadets taken for a ride

Television show hopes to convince participants they are in orbit.

Lost in space: not.Lost in space: not.© NASA

It is all set to be the thrill of a lifetime. A group of intrepid adventurers, having fought off dozens of other hopefuls, will head into space for a five-day voyage, to be watched and envied by millions. Except they won't.

Space Cadets, which hits British television screens next month, is the latest ambitious experiment in 'reality TV'. The show's organizers have rigged a Hollywood space-shuttle set with all the sights, sounds and shakes of a genuine space flight. But, unbeknownst to the participants, the craft will never leave the ground.

In attempting this mother of all practical jokes, the production team has equipped its 'spacecraft' with surround-sound speakers that play a soundtrack of whooshing and humming engine noises, and a hydraulic platform providing realistic jolts and shudders.

The craft's interior, modified from the set used by Clint Eastwood in Space Cowboys, will feature windows that give super-high-resolution images of Earth, including a simulated hurricane over Mexico. (Hopefully none of the adventurers will remember that the Atlantic hurricane season usually ends in November.)

If all goes smoothly, the crew will complete a five-day mission in early December without realizing that they are still on terra firma in Britain.

"Fingers crossed, it'll be believable," says the show's executive producer, Shirley Jones of Dutch production company Endemol.

Massive deception

The one thing the programme-makers will not be able to simulate, of course, is microgravity. Instead, the crew will be told that they will be soaring to an altitude of some 100 kilometres, which is enough to qualify for astronaut status, but not to induce weightlessness.

This is not entirely true. SpaceShipOne, the first commercial craft to touch space, rocketed up to 100 kilometres and gave its pilot a brief feeling of free fall.

The craft's soundtrack will also not be completely realistic. Real astronauts have described the eerie silence of drifting through orbit as being as still as death. On board the fake vehicle, the super-noisy launch will give way to a constant, reassuringly mechanical hum.

The pretend crew will receive a series of lectures described as "80% truth, 20% fiction" (see 'What every budding astronaut should know').

You are going to space...

The show's success will depend in part on finding volunteers with the right psychological make-up. From a hundred hopefuls, the final handful of candidates were picked for their 'suggestibility', as well as teamwork skills, fitness and sense of calm under pressure. Behind closed doors, the cameras will film this group being whittled down to just three who will 'fly' on the shuttle, together with an actor to smooth over any cracks in the illusion.

Psychologists agree that suggestibility relies on the subject having a creative and easily harnessed sense of imagination. "It's certainly not about people being weak or gullible," says Jones.

Psychologist Colin Gill of the University of Leeds, UK, suspects that the people selected will be "imaginative but also badly informed. They will be people who, in terms of life experience, are fairly naive... whose knowledge of space goes only as far as Star Wars."

Big reveal

If all goes to plan, the producers may tell the crew that they are going on a space walk, before throwing open the shuttle door to reveal the volunteers' waiting families. "We want to make sure that everybody who goes is mentally and physically strong enough to do it, and to cope with the aftermath," Jones says.

But Gill fears the emotional fall-out of being the butt of such a colossal joke. "Being revealed to millions of people as an absolute chump could have a big effect on someone. Your friends, your closest support network, may be tempted to laugh at you for the rest of your life."

If anyone does suspect a hoax, the herd mentality may keep them quiet anyway, says the show's commissioning editor, Angela Jain. "People are more likely to believe something if the rest of the group goes along with it."

From Russia with laughs


In the meantime, the candidates will have plenty to occupy them. Besides the rigors of their training, they are being told that they will travel to Russia's Star City space base... another hoax. Instead, they will be flown in circles over the sea before landing at a British military base kitted out with all the accoutrements of Russian life, right down to the brand of toothpaste.

Onboard, the space cadets will be occupied by a range of fake science experiments. And perhaps the producers could simulate an emergency to spice things up, suggests Jeffrey Jones, a NASA surgeon who monitors astronauts' health aboard the International Space Station. This would rob them of time to contemplate things, and "would provide a very realistic stimulus", he says.

Other television programmes have been proposed that would really send people into space, but none has entered production... yet.