Ipswich, we have a problem: Space Cadets, the reality show that never left the ground | Reality TV


In December 2005, a group of outgoing twentysomethings were gathered in front of cameras on a remote airstrip. They had signed up for a reality TV series called Thrill Seekers and, after five months of auditions, they were about to find out the exact premise of the show. The host, Johnny Vaughan, told the excited gang: “You are about to become … the very first televised British space tourists.” They started screaming, jumping up and down and hugging each other. They were going into actual space!

Except, they weren’t. Despite now lingering forgotten, Space Cadets, launched 15 years ago by Channel 4, was one of television’s biggest ever pranks. A meticulously executed televised stunt (costing a reported £5m) that wanted to test how far the limits of reality could be pushed. Could they convince a few members of the public that they had blasted off from a Russian space camp into the galaxy on a five-day orbit of the Earth?

“We had every confidence that it wouldn’t work,” says Ben Caudell, an executive producer then working at Zeppotron, who first came up with the idea. “We were originally joking about what sort of hidden camera stunts you could pull. Growing up, one of my favourite films was Capricorn One, which was about a faked mission to Mars, so I suggested: ‘What if we pretended people were going to the moon?’ We all sort of laughed about it, but over the course of months, we talked about whether it would be possible.”

The team decided that, for it to be a plausible expedition, the potential astronauts would have to be sent to Russia, which they also opted to fake (for cost reasons). They set up an old RAF base, 10 miles from Ipswich, to act as a former Soviet space bootcamp, and scaled back the mission from landing on the moon to orbiting the Earth instead.

Endemol – which produced Big Brother – was brought in to help carry out this wild new TV experiment. “It was not: ‘Can we pull it off?’, but, ‘How are we going to pull it off?’” says Petrina Good, Space Cadets’ director of production. “The suspension of reality was a key factor,” she explains, so RAF Bentwaters was filled with Russian-branded groceries: crisps, cereals, biscuits, shower gel, condoms, and even “cigarettes, so if any of the crew who were filming near the contestants were smoking, there would only be Russian butts lying around”. A host of Russian-speaking actors were hired, every plug socket was changed to a Russian one, while there were even dedicated litter-pickers, just in case the wind happened to blow in a packet of Walkers crisps. Nothing could be allowed to break the carefully constructed illusion.

With a team of 400 assembled ready for launch, all they needed were their targets. Caudell says: “We talked to a lot of psychologists about the right sort of person to undertake this experience. A lot of people thought, well, the only people who would fall for that would be idiots. And actually, that’s not true. For this to work, you need what are known as susceptible people; people who are intelligent, have a creative mind, like practical jokes, and want to go along with people.

“We knew there was a certain type of person we were after, and we thought there would be people who were excited by the thought of a TV mission, and it would be fun for them.”

Over the course of the auditions, nine people who fit the psychological bill were selected, and one of those nine contestants was Louise Dekker, then a 23-year old PE teacher from Whitstable, Kent. She had applied to an advert for a TV show saying: “Are you adventurous? Do you like to take risks?”, and now says: “I thought it would be a show like Castaway or Shipwrecked, or that it might be something like canoeing up the Amazon.”

On the night Vaughan revealed that the group were going into space – and for the duration of the show – he says he engineered it so that he never actually told an outright lie to the contestants. “I’d previously had a meeting with Endemol’s psychologist to talk about the effects of it, and he’d emphasised the fact that they were all going to trust me,” he says. “So I said: ‘Look, I’m not Jeremy Beadle, all respect to him: I’m not going to lie to them.’ So I changed it to say ‘[One day] you’re going to go to space, you’re going to go to Star City, you’ll experience weightlessness,’ which they did actually get to do in the Russian space centre once the show was over.”

Space Cadets
The cadets prepare for take off, flying from Suffolk to … Suffolk. Photograph: Channel 4/PA

Charlie Skelton, a comedy writer who was planted in the group as a mole, says: “The announcement of where we were going was what I found most problematic. The contestants were utterly hyper and high in the most extraordinary elation. Everyone at that point thought that their lives would change for ever. People were saying: ‘I’m going to be friends with Tom Cruise’, or, ‘I’m going to be on Oprah.’ But I had the harrowing knowledge that this wasn’t the case. It was like taking a bunch of kids to meet Santa, then revealing he didn’t exist.”

In a blacked-out plane, the crew were flown to Krymsk – in reality they just looped around the UK for four hours – and arrived at STAR, the space camp in Suffolk. A month-long immersion and propaganda campaign then began with lessons that would falsely explain one of the main lies of the project: there would be no zero gravity on their space mission, because they were going into “near space”, rather than outer space. Things were slowly getting a little more preposterous, but these fake facts were happily accepted by all.

At the end of this training, it was revealed which four contestants would be selected. Although Dekker initially had her doubts about whether it was all a hoax, after her month-long immersion into space bootcamp, her competitive nature kicked in, and she was desperate to be chosen. When her name was not read out, she says: “I was absolutely inconsolable. I actually had to take my sock off to wipe my tears from my face. I thought I’d done really well in the exam and the physical exercises. I was really, really gutted.”

Skelton – who was “chosen” to go on the mission alongside Keri Hassett, Paul French and Billy Jackson – says it was at this point his confusion kicked in. “When Louise didn’t get chosen, I was crying for her,” he says. “I thought: “Oh my gosh, she deserves to go into space more than any of us.’ I knew it wasn’t true, but I was genuinely upset for her. I was all over the shop before I even got on the space shuttle.”

Louise Dekker
Prepared for take off … Louise Dekker. Photograph: Channel 4/PA

Launch night had arrived. Everything rested on being able to convince the three contestants that they had launched into space, using a simulator and a replica space shuttle last seen in the film Space Cowboys. But when the countdown reached zero, the rocket … did not take off. “It was the hydraulics,” says Good. “When it didn’t blast off, that was a massive worry.” Luckily, the pilots (two actors) were able to adlib before the shuttle really took “flight”.

However, for all the hype around the launch, if it looked a little underwhelming on TV, the contestants also appeared equally nonplussed. There was no massive G-force pinning them to their seats; in fact, the team commented that it was “smooth” and “like we were just in a car”. But the technical trickery and slow drip of misinformation continued, disorientating them just enough to accept the faked reality.

The highlight of the trip was going to be finally viewing the Earth from space, but it was almost ruined when a moth threatened to fly in front of the CGI projector in the studio. When the shutters were eventually lifted on the space station and the cast got to view the Earth, Hassett, France and Jackson were all close to tears, as they experienced what real-life astronauts call the Overview effect, an almost philosophical shift in awareness that comes from viewing the Earth from space. For the Space Cadets, although the entire world around them was manufactured, the genuine emotion it elicited was not. They believed they were looking at the Earth, so in some sense, they really were, and even when everything was later revealed, they would still retain those feelings of awestruck wonder. Skelton says: “It was genuinely moving, and I was definitely immersed. A tiny bit of my brain was saying: ‘This isn’t real’ but most of it was going, ‘Wow, look, there’s Canada.’”

Back on Earth, other land-based cosmonauts were finally let in on the joke. Dekker says: “I was really angry, which must have been quite obvious, as the team said they were very concerned. They took me to one side and talked to me about it and said, ‘Don’t worry’. But I was a teacher, so I was worried that I could look really stupid in front of people.”

Johnny Vaughn
Johnny Vaughn – ‘I didn’t let them do some of the things they wanted to get them to do, like getting the contestants to act like monkeys.’ Photograph: Channel 4/PA

It was something that was ethically weighing on Vaughan’s mind as well. Onboard the space shuttle, the astronauts had to complete some increasingly bizarre tasks, like conducting a funeral for a made-up celebrity dog called Mr Bimby. Vaughan says that he intervened several times on behalf of the contestants, so they wouldn’t look foolish: “I didn’t let [the producers] do some of the things they wanted to get them to do, like getting the contestants to act like monkeys.”

Watching it back now – the whole series has been uploaded to a YouTube account – the astronauts come close to guessing so many times. At one point, French corners Skelton, telling him he’s convinced they’re just in a caravan and questions – fairly – why a state-of-the-art space station would use normal bathroom scales to weigh the astronauts. “I feel like it’s not real,” he says. “Like something’s fake.”

“I remember that conversation with Paul,” says Skelton. “It went on for hours. I think that was the cruelest thing I probably did in the whole thing was to convince the person who had realised that the whole thing was fake that he was wrong … he was 90% of the way there in guessing; he knew it, but didn’t know it.”

Finally, as five days drew to a close, the crew onboard the space station were told they would be doing a spacewalk. In reality, a door on the pod was pulled open to reveal Vaughan, their friends and family, and the studio audience. On standby were a medic and a psychologist, in case anybody’s heart or brain short-circuited from the shock.

The gotcha! moment seems almost flat: 10 days of programming and hundreds of hours of filming for a minute or so of muted shock. The contestants are eased into the truth by being shown footage of them already half-guessing that it was all an elaborate ruse – which at least feels like a slightly kinder way of breaking it to them – and Vaughan tells them: “The good news is you were right all along!” Hassett says she’s “heartbroken”, while Jackson says: “I feel stupid as hell”. French makes an attempt to laugh and says: “Ahh, that’s embarrassing.”

All three astronauts look bemused, unsure of why somebody would bother going to all that effort for a practical joke. Production boss Good says: “We were not there to humiliate, embarrass or take the piss out of people, it was more we wanted them to be able to see the funny side of it.”

At its apex, the whole confused idea just sort of fizzled out. Neither the greatest practical TV joke of all time, nor the iconic height of reality TV (the show pulled in an estimated 2 million viewers a night), its legacy is now just a bizarre moment in British television history. Yes, there have been crueller TV shows – There’s Something About Miriam, The Swan or The X Factor’s carnivalesque “rejects” performances spring to mind – but there is something about the psychologically manipulative concept that just doesn’t sit right, and with reality TV finally forced to examine its duty of care over the past few years, it is highly unlikely the series would ever be commissioned today.

It is also unclear who the series was actually for. Looking back on it, Vaughan says: “I was never quite sure who the joke was on. Is it the contestants, or Charlie Skelton? Or the viewer, like, ‘Serves you right for watching reality TV’? Or at one point I even wondered if the whole show had all been faked to be revealed as a joke on me, the host.

“In the end,” he adds, “I thought it was pretty grubby. It was the last time I worked in TV, actually. When I started in telly in 1993, there was a real love for the viewers, but then I saw it as signalling an age of contempt for the viewers. I don’t regret presenting Space Cadets, though, as I think I made it kinder than it was. I made the producers promise that they would send people to Star City as a prize.” All the nine contestants were given £5,000 for their participation, then really sent to Russia, where they went to the cosmonaut training camp, and experienced weightlessness on a parabolic flight. The three contestants who were on the shuttle won a prize of £25,000 each.

But afterwards, Skelton couldn’t quite shake the feeling he was in his own personal Truman Show: “For about a month, I thought I was on camera all the time. I would wake up at night and think there were cameras in the corner of the room. It was quite disturbing. It took a while for reality to kick in.” Now, he looks back at it all a bit more cerebrally: “I’ve tried to kind of understand it as an experience in immersion and being told one thing, and it was evidently not the case. It’s a big thing in the context of politics now. I think I found it valuable at this level; it’s made me slightly more aware.”

Dekker pauses when asked whether she regrets taking part. “I kind of regretted going on it for a bit,” she says, “as I lived in a little bubble world before this, I always used to think the best of people. Afterwards, I started second-guessing people and I became a bit more negative about things. That was a shame, as it was a nice personality trait to have.”

That the series was broadcast before we all lived 24/7 on social media was a blessing, she adds. That and the fact the nation seems to have collectively wiped Space Cadets from its memory.

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