Will dry ice and dazzling lights persuade 'Space Cadets' they are boarding a rocket?

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The Independent Online

On the first stage of their journey, contestants in Channel 4's new reality television show Space Cadets, were told they were flying to Krymsk near the Black Sea, home to the Space Tourism Agency of Russia.

If they had looked out of the window shortly before landing, they would have glimpsed Canary Wharf in the distance. Only a quick-thinking producer saved the day by organising a hasty sing-song to divert their attention. In a week's time, the illusion will be recreated on an even grander scale, when the Big Brother creator Endemol attempts to persuade three contestants they have travelled to near space, 100km (62 miles) above the Earth's surface.

The 12 finalists - nine genuine contestants and three actors - are now ensconced at RAF Bentwaters, a disused military airfield near Ipswich. Endemol has spared no expense to convince them they are at the Star City cosmonaut training camp in Russia - hiring scores of Russian actors and bulk-buying everything from fridge magnets to sanitary towels in Russian supermarkets.

The contestants have been carefully selected for their suggestibility, but they may wonder why cars bearing Russian number plates are right-hand drive, why the weather is surprisingly mild, or why the site is also home to thousands of free-range geese when Russians do not celebrate Christmas until 7 January, when they eat a meat-free meal.

In seven days' time, their credulousness will be put to the ultimate test, when in a weird hybrid of Stars In Their Eyes and Space Odyssey, they will be escorted into a hangar and led along a plastic tunnel to the craft that will take them into orbit. The producers are hoping that a combination of dry ice and dazzling lights will blind them to the fact that Earth Orbiter 1 is actually a decidedly non-aerodynamic wooden crate.

Nicknamed "the Griffon" after a mythological bird, the shuttle's interior has been lovingly constructed by the Hollywood special effects expert Brick Price, whose credits include Apollo 13 and Mork and Mindy, and the sound designer Dean Andre, a fellow west coast boffin. Inside, conditions are cramped and sparse. The four passengers - one an actor posing as a contestant - and two pilots (also both actors) - will take turns to sleep in the tiny midsection and use the minuscule cubicle that doubles up as lavatory and shower room.

From there it is an ungainly crawl into the cockpit, adapted from the set of Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys, where the contestants will be strapped in for take-off. They have been told the windows must be blacked out for the launch, but later, the shutters will be raised to reveal the view of Earth from space - a high definition image projected on to a giant screen. From a certain angle, the floor of the studio is clearly visible, but the production team insists all inconsistencies will be ironed out in time for lift-off.

Andre has let his imagination loose, recording a rocket taking off in the Californian desert and throwing cat litter and dog food against a van to recreate the sound of a meteorite storm. At low volume, the sound effects are reminiscent of a Space Invaders game, but amplified and combined with a vibrating and tilting cockpit, the contestants might just be conned.

The back section of the craft is a laboratory, where - if they haven't yet rumbled the whole crazy scheme - the passengers will while away the long hours conducting experiments.

Since details of the hoax emerged, the contestants have been kept away from all media, sent with minders on luxury holidays to Thailand and the Maldives.

At present, they are receiving lectures comprising 80 per cent fact and 20 per cent misinformation at a training centre decorated with old James Bond props and a full colour portrait of Vladimir Putin. Given the difficulties of recreating weightlessness, they have been told they will not experience any loss of gravity in near space.

Even if the broadcasters pull off the stunt, it could surely never be repeated? But incredibly, despite widespread publicity for the show in the US, the ABC television network is on the brink of buying the format. Is there anyone in America gullible enough to fall for it a second time round?