Astronomy and Space

Space Cadets: TV’s Most Expensive Hoax

The age of space tourism is upon us. At this writing, the world (and Trekkies, in particular) is reveling in William Shatner’s recent journey into space, becoming the oldest person to do so. Blue Origin and SpaceX are in a race to make space travel accessible to the general public. It seems to be only a matter of time before someone makes a reality TV show about it.

When they do, it will not be the first. Sixteen years ago, a British television program offered ordinary people the opportunity to compete for the opportunity of a lifetime. Four individuals were selected to become the United Kingdom’s first space tourists. Space Cadets was the reality TV show that chronicled the competition and followed the four finalists as they went into orbit.

Well, sort of. The contestants thought they were competing and training for a 5-day mission in space, but the joke was on them. Space Cadets was the most expensive hoax in television history.

The Hook

Notice appearing in newspapers, seeking contestants for Space Cadets.

The premise of the program was to chronicle the experiences of four people who thought they were training to go into space and to deceive them into thinking they actually were in space. To pull this off, it would take a remarkable combination of Hollywood special effects, psychological conditioning, and a lot of blind luck.

The victims of the hoax were lured in through advertisements that appeared throughout the UK. Hundreds of people responded and were interviewed. All they knew at this point was that they were being considered for a reality tv show. They had no idea what the nature of it would be.

Identifying Those With the Right Stuff

Genuine astronaut selection processes, such as those employed by NASA, seek individuals with high intelligence, good problem-solving skills, specialized education, and outstanding physical fitness. Space Cadets employed almost the exact opposite selection criteria. Anyone whose hobbies included astronomy, physics, or military bases was immediately eliminated. They also excluded anyone with even the slightest grasp of the Russian language.

Fifty contestants were selected and brought to London for additional screening. The producers were looking for individuals who showed enough self-confidence that they could take a joke and those who demonstrated a high level of suggestibility. Their susceptibility to claustrophobia was tested by strapping them into sleeping bags for twenty minutes and assessing their reaction to being trapped in a crowded elevator during an unannounced equipment failure.

Out of these fifty, nine were selected to be the semi-finalists and appear on the television program. In addition to these nine, three undercover actors were included, with instructions to help with the subterfuge. For the hoax to be successful, all of the contestants would need to be fooled. This is where the efforts to identify the most gullible would make or break the program.

Russian Space Tourism Training

Their adventure began at night at an airport where they were informed for the first time that they would be competing to be the first space tourists from the UK. They were told to board a charter airplane that would fly them 3,000 miles to a Russian space tourism training facility known as S.T.A.R. Instead, they flew under the cover of darkness for 3.5 hours in a circular route over the North Sea. When they landed, they thought they were in Volgograd, Russia. In fact, they were still in the UK, just 38 miles from where they started.

The contestants disembarked from the plane in total darkness, with nothing to give away their true location. They boarded a helicopter for a short jump to Ipswich and what they thought was a converted Russian military base.

How do you convince a group of Britons that they are in Russia instead of their own country? This is where the magic of Hollywood and a lot of money come into play.

The venue for the rest of their adventure was a former United States military base near Ipswich known as Bentwaters Parks. It is not the first time it has been used for entertainment purposes. If you have watched the movies Fast & Furious 6, Wonder Woman, or The Numbers Station, or the television program Top Gear, you have seen scenes filmed at the site.

Bentwaters Park site map. (Click image to expand)

For Space Cadets, Bentwaters Park would have to undergo a thorough remodeling. All English signs and markers had to be replaced with Russian counterparts. The production team sent a crew to Russia to buy groceries, snacks, toilet paper, etc. to stock the facilities at Bentwaters. Actors were clothed in Russian military uniforms, trained in Russian language and accents, and pieces of Russian military equipment in various states of repair were placed throughout the facilities. Even the electrical outlets were replaced with Russian counterparts.

For the training, the contestants would need to believe they were preparing for the real thing. To assist with the illusion, the team accumulated astronaut-related material from all over the world. Some of it was authentic. Some was clearly rubbish. This is the point where the gullibility of the contestants would really start to be tested.

Upon arrival at the facility, they were greeted by what appeared to be armed Russian soldiers. They checked the paperwork of each of the individuals, even feigning to have misplaced the authorization for one person. The contestants were loaded onto a bus and escorted under heavy security past Russian military vehicles, tanks, guard patrols, and guard dogs to a separately-secured part of the base, known as S.T.A.R. — Space Tourism Agency of Russia. Here, the contestants were shown to the barracks that would be their home for the next three weeks.

Wait a Minute! How Did They Deal With….

You might be asking yourself how it is possible to convince anyone that he or she is in space when there is the trifling little issue of gravity. And what about the overwhelming G-forces we know astronauts experience as they take off? How do you simulate that? And we know that astronauts require years of highly-technical training to make them competent to handle the most complex machines ever devised. How can you teach anyone enough physics, aerodynamics, and orbital mechanics so they feel at all comfortable with leaving the confines of earth?

Did we mention that the contestants were chosen for their lack of science knowledge? Did we also mention they were screened to determine their level of suggestibility?

Much of their training was conducted in the classroom. Here, rather than be taught the intricacies of space science, they were indoctrinated into believing what was necessary to pull off the hoax. This involved a brilliant combination of misinformation and mocking of the unwary students.

On the first day in the classroom, for example, the instructor told the contestants that they were the embodiment of S.T.A.R.’s motto, “Это не ракетостроение (Eto ne raketostroyeniye).” He told them this translates as, “We, the adventurers.” In reality, it means, “It’s not rocket science.”

Indeed, very little about what they were to learn would qualify as rocket science.

The elephant in the room was gravity. Everyone knows that weightlessness is part of the package when you go into space. The producers tackled this head-on, by having a lecturer instruct the contestants about the dynamics of gravity. “Gravity is like just about everything else,” the instructor told the students. “Once you understand it, you can actually control it.”

The way gravity would be controlled would be through the installation of three Artificial Gravity Generators (AGG) on the spacecraft. These would negate the weightlessness effect of being in orbit.

The expected G-forces were addressed in much the same way. The contestants were told that the vessel that would take them into space was not capable of vertical takeoff. Instead, it would leave the ground like an airplane. For this reason, they would not be subjected to the powerful G-forces. It was also for this reason that they would not be going into deep space; instead, they would remain in “near-earth orbit.” This was an additional factor in the negligible weightlessness they would feel.

Much of what they were taught during their class time would cause even the most amateur space buff to laugh in disbelief. They learned, for example, that the earth is located in the midst of what astronomers call the Hazelnut Cluster of stars. They learned the Mission Control callsigns for the various technicians, including real ones such as Flight for the Flight Director, CAPCOM for the person who communicates with the ship, FIDO for the Flight Controller. They also learned fabricated ones, such as LIDO (Logistics Dynamics Officer), NACAS (Navigation, Aeronautics, Control, and Specialist), and MUMI (Medical Utilities Maintenance Interface).

They learned an interesting — if utterly false — history of the Russian city of Minsk, learning that it was named in 1958 after Minsky, the first monkey to fly in space. At this time they were introduced to Minsky’s stuffed body, preserved in its original astronaut suit.

By the time the instruction/indoctrination was completed, one of the actors who was inserted into the group of candidates told the tv viewers, “You could have told them that the Anti-Gravity Generators were powered by miniaturized hamsters. Bring it on. Whatever you’ve got, we’ll believe.”

Yeah, But Even So, How in the World Did They Believe This Stuff?

A scene from a Candid Camera episode, showing how Group Dynamics influences passengers on an elevator.

Space Cadets gave the world a fascinating look into a psychological principle called Group Dynamics. In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a number of experiments to determine how people are influenced by the thinking of others within their peer group. To do this, he placed individuals into groups to take “vision tests.” As a group, they were shown four lines of varying lengths. One by one, they were asked which of the other three lines was closest in size to the first line. In each group of participants, all but one had agreed in advance to give the incorrect answer. The individual who was being evaluated was unaware that the others had made this agreement.

On average, about one-third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority. Seventy-five percent conformed at least once, while only 25% stuck to their guns and gave the clearly correct answer.

This phenomenon of conforming one’s behavior under peer pressure has been demonstrated for entertainment purposes on the television program Candid Camera. A classic episode showed unsuspecting individuals in an elevator filled with actors. When the actors all turned to face the back of the elevator, the person who was unaware of the plan would, after a moment’s confusion, turn and conform to the behavior of the others.

Because of the tendency to conform to the rest of the group and because participants in Space Cadets were chosen because of their high level of suggestibility, those who began to have some doubts about the science or the premise of their situation were put at ease because they saw apparent buy-in from the others.

The Crew is Selected

The candidates stand and salute “Courage and Endeavor,” which is actually a recipe for Toad in the Hole.

The participants engaged in three weeks of physical training. The twice-daily sessions were led by an ex-KGB officers. They sat through 65 hours of lectures. They trained for responding to emergencies that might arise during the mission, including contingency plans for monkeys rampaging through the spacecraft.

The completion of their education and training was marked by a ceremony in which the candidates stood and saluted the reading of the Russian poem “Courage and Endeavor.” It was, however, a Russian translation of the recipe for the classic English dish, Toad in a Hole. Viewers were treated to the preposterous sight of the solemn candidates, standing at attention with arms raised to their foreheads to salute as the spoken words appeared translated as subtitles on their television screens: “You will need the following ingredients: one pound of good pork sausages, one egg, four ounces of self-rising flour….”

From there, the four new astronauts were announced. One was an actor to help maintain the illusion. The other three were genuine candidates whose participation over the past three weeks singled them out as the most likely to be taken in by the next stage of the hoax. They would be joined by the pilot and co-pilot of the mission, both of whom were also actors.

A Little Help From Hollywood

The most important item to pull off the ruse was the spacecraft in which the contestants would be launched into space. For this, the producers turned to Hollywood.

They began by acquiring a shuttle that was used in the movies Deep Impact, Space Cowboys, and Armageddon. It was built out of wood, so set designers invested a lot of time, talent, and money into making it appear to be a state-of-the-art technological wonder. They filled the interior with computers and extensive surround sound speakers throughout the structure. The sound system was described as being akin to taking a nightclub sound system and putting it in your bathroom at home.

The shuttle was mounted on pneumatic lifts to simulate takeoff and movement while in orbit. A custom-designed 7-meter (23-feet) tall, 20-meter (66-feet) wide projector screen surrounded the simulator to give the visual illusion of being in orbit. By crafty use of motion, visual effects, and near-deafening levels of sound, those within the simulator would be hard-pressed to discern illusion from reality.

The “launch” that takes the space cadets into low earth orbit.

Ingeniously, the crew was never given the opportunity to see their spacecraft from the outside. The closest they got was a late-night glimpse through a hanger door, where steam and bright lights obscured all but a hastily-constructed nose and front landing gear. When the time came for them to enter the spacecraft, they did so through an umbilical connecting tube.

When the time came for the big launch into space, the whole scheme nearly collapsed. The crew breathlessly awaited the final countdown. At zero, they felt the vehicle moving through the hydraulic lifts, but the sound failed. The crewmembers looked at each other in confusion, wondering what had just happened. Fortunately, the actors who were piloting the vessel engaged in some quick thinking and reported a “power loss” and said that support vehicles were towing the spacecraft into position.

Once the sound problem was addressed, they went through the countdown again. This time, everything worked perfectly. When the jostling and cacophony settled down, the pilot announced they had achieved orbit. The protective shields over the windows were lifted, and the would-be astronauts were treated to the breathtaking view of the earth from orbit.

OK, We’re in Space; Where Do We Go From Here?

The big reveal, where the “astronauts” are let in on the joke.

Up to this point, Space Cadets fulfilled its promise to the viewing public. They successfully convinced a group of people that they had been selected, trained for, and achieved the honor of being the first British space tourists. Unbelievably, these individuals were sitting in a Hollywood prop near Ipswich in regular earth gravity, but they believed they were orbiting the earth.

This, disappointingly, is where the show veers off course. It appeared to the viewers that all of the planning went toward getting the participants into space but that there was little thought about what to do once they got there. Promos for upcoming episodes teased the possibility of the crew having to deal with meteor strikes, inflight emergencies, and even alien encounters. What they ended up doing was making balloon animals and seeing if they could power a fax machine with fruit. They conducted a botched funeral service for Mr. Bimby, a made-up canine television star. The dog’s ashes were accidentally spilled during the ceremony and cleaned up with a Dust Buster.

Things got so ludicrous that even the most gullible people the producers could find began to suspect they were part of a big joke. By the time of the big reveal, in which they were told they had traveled no more than 38 miles from where the whole thing started, it was all a bit of a letdown.

It all came to an end when the crew was placed in a pod for an extra-vehicular mission. Before departing the spacecraft, however, they were shown videos of those moments where each of them expressed some doubt about the reality of their mission. When it was over, the pod, now moved into the studio, opened to the sights and sounds of cheers, laughter, and applause of the witnesses.

The duped participants seemed genuinely more distraught to learn they had never been to Russia than they were about the news that they had been mocked by the world for the past several weeks.

As a consolation prize, they were given the chance to experience true weightlessness aboard the Vomit Comet, a zero-G simulator used by real astronauts-in-training.

All told, producers spent £4.5 million ($6.1 million) on what proved to be television’s most expensive hoax.

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