In the most gleeful declaration in history of that most versatile of phrases “UNBEKNOWNST TO THEM”, Space Cadets was introduced to the nation’s screens on 7 December 2005.
Wearing a longline parka and an almost cosmic grin, British breakfast bloke Johnny Vaughan told the 2.6 million viewers tuning in to Channel 4 that he and his team would be tricking a bunch of members of the public into believing they were going to space on a five-day mission to orbit the earth.
Showing us around the recreation of a Russian space station in a field near Ipswich (soundproofed so that the bells of a local parish church wouldn’t give the game away), Vaughan demonstrated how the fake spaceship (designed from real blueprints) was simply made of MDF and what looked like tin foil.
The production team visited a local Essex aircraft junkyard to buy some military bric-a-brac, which they plastered with Cyrillic lettering (the “space station” motto is Это не ракетостроение – “It’s not rocket science”) before going to Moscow for a supermarket sweep of Russian supplies to last the space cadets three weeks. “Cheap as chipskis,” hams Vaughan.
In a bid to find suggestible, low-inhibition contenders, the auditions for the space cadets included the gold standard trope of early social experiment entertainment: psychological tests.
These rigorous assessments included:
1. Making them dance blindfolded to no music.
2. Influencing them with fake answers to a how-many-sweets-in-the-jar? guessing game (except with rubber eyeballs because this was Channel 4 in 2005).
3. Seeing if they’d identify non-existent faces in cards patterned with dots (“it looks like an Italian priest, with The Joker out of Batman’s make-up on,” spotted one wannabe astronaut).
4. Making sure they weren’t claustrophobic by trapping them in a lift and filming them until they reached the brink of anxiety attacks. Ethics ’05!
Oh, and they also made sure to eliminate applicants whose hobbies were “military bases or space” – including anyone who could name more than four Star Trek characters.
Nine ecstatic recruits (including three actors who were in on the hoax) were told they would be “the very first televised British space tourists”.
Cue group hugs and cries of “OH MY DAYS” from the unsuspecting gaggle of recruitment consultants, students and administrators. And on they hopped from Kent onto the flight to Russia (a plane flying around the UK for four hours before landing in Suffolk. Apparently climate change didn’t exist 13 years ago).
What followed were 20 days of training and lectures for the nine contestants before three were chosen to go to space – or, more accurately, ten consecutive evenings of some of the most compelling television of all time.
Falling for nonsense rituals (they had to salute a toad-in-the-hole recipe translated into Russian, and honour the ashes of a deceased space dog called Mr Bimby), hammy Russian guards (one is called “Colonel FSB”), ludicrous costumes (white body-suits bought from a fetish shop), bogus tests (making balloon animals), and fake crises (one of the actors excretes a “parasitic worm” in the spacecraft – actually a toy from a joke shop), they blast off with a bit of juddering in the simulator and no weightlessness (“It’s very smooth, it’s like we haven’t even left the ground, really weird!”).
Despite a moth on the CGI projection of Earth nearly blowing the whole hoax, the show successfully led three people to believe they were in space.
The moment of solemnity when the contestants first “look down to Earth” was actually quite heartbreaking. They even wrote poetry about the experience afterwards. Paul, a plasterer from Bristol, visibly moved, told the camera: “It was just the best thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m just thrilled and happy, and so proud, and lucky I’m here.”
“I’m speechless, sorry, I just saw the world,” breathes Billy, a recruitment consultant from Kent. “It was everything I imagined and more.”
And that’s the point, Billy. It’s what was happening in their imaginations that really mattered.
Because while audiences couldn’t fathom how gullible the space cadets were, what I always remember from the show isn’t that it was one big £5m hilarious prank. It was the joy the participants had of knowing – even if it was just in the moment – what it felt like to achieve their dream of seeing Earth from space.
The big reveal. YouTube/Cadets2012
Even the actor on the space flight, Charlie Skelton, was moved during the mission. “I’m so deep within it myself,” he said in the diary room after “seeing” Earth with his fellow travellers. “It’s a very, very odd experience, because I know where I am, and yet I don’t… It’s honestly humbling.”
Often looking genuinely baffled, he even admitted to being only “70/30 per cent” sure he was still on the ground when they were taking off.
“I was for quite a lot of time in Russia and I was for quite a lot of time in space – I know that sounds stupid but I really was,” he told the studio audience after the hoax was revealed.
Another English actor, Alex Humes, who played a pilot called Yevgeny, was also deeply absorbed by the prank – method acting as a Russian astronaut for four months to truly believe in his role.
As a 16-year-old enraptured by the programme, I always remember the contestants reasoning that they knew the unique feeling of going to space.
“I know I was sitting in a rocket, getting all philosophical, thinking I’d discovered a little bit about myself,” said Billy afterwards. “I’ve been to space, and thinking about life in general and how you treat people.”
“You’ll know some things we’ll never know,” boggled Vaughan, interviewing them in the studio afterwards. “At the time, you’ve known what it’s like to believe you’re looking at the Earth from a space shuttle. I’ll never have that.”
Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.