Last Great Unclimbed Mountains

Astronauts: Episode One

The train took me to Cheltenham Spa, where I was met by a taxi and taken to a hotel. It was all very clandestine! I was met by some BBC producers, who took my mobile phone and credit cards away, promising a safe return at the end of the filming block. A sleepless night ensued, and the Candidates met the following morning at an airfield. We were issued our flight suits and black boots, and Chris Hadfield arrived in a helicopter and told us our first test. Hovering a helicopter just a few metres above the ground for as long as we could. There are three controls; pedals for the feet to control yaw, a control that looks like a handbrake that controls vertical motion (the collective), and a final control that moves the helicopter in all other dimensions called the cyclic. This control, it turns out, is extremely sensitive. I watched the others go out one by one and take their turn, as the helicopter lurched around the skies, always brought back by the extremely brave pilot Tamsin on the dual controls.

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I was nervous for my turn, and I managed two of the controls without too much difficulty. Then I was handed the cyclic. I was so sure I hadn’t moved my hand at all when I was given control, but the helicopter began to rock backwards and forwards, with increasing amplitude as I over-corrected until Tamsin returned us back to stability once again. I felt as though I was improving during my flying time, however I certainly never felt in control of the helicopter!  I think the goal of this test was to see our approach to learning a new skill which we would all find difficult.  Are we too stubborn to hand back control? Are we persistent? Is there any sign of improvement in our performance over our 15 minutes?

The second test (the following day) was a cardiovascular test called ‘The Beep Test’. Two sets of cones are set a fixed distance apart, and the victims run from one line to the next, then turn and run back again. They must reach the line before a pre-recorded beep is sounded, and the beeps get closer together in time such that the runners must speed up to stay within them. I have done this particular test before, and as soon as I saw the cones, I knew what we were in for. We all had heart rate monitors on, and Tim very excitedly ran up to me at the start and informed me that my heart rate was 112 beats per minute – we hadn’t even started yet!


The test went as I remembered, and I came second, with Vijay managing one more length than I did. I can honestly say that under the conditions, I couldn’t have run another length!


Well, next came an interview with a psychologist, and the Director of the Centre of Space Medicine at UCL, Dr. Iya Whitely. Walking into the room, I was asked to sit right on the edge of a chair positioned so my feet were dangling, with bright lights in my eyes. Iya asked me a range of questions, from ‘What would you do with one million pounds’ to ‘What would you ask if I gave you one question to pose to potential candidates accompanying you on a mission to Mars’. Her face gave nothing away, and she looked into my eyes as though she could see my soul! I think it’s fair to say I was intimidated by her! Only later did I realise that Iya is one of the most lovely people I’ve ever met.  It’s a little terrifying to hear her say that it’s the little pauses, the tiny facial expressions before we speak, that give it all away.


Well, on to the memory test, and my first encounter with Chris Hadfield. I walked into a room and he was sitting at a table with a tape recorder and a clipboard. I was asked to step onto an aerobics step, while listening to a sequence of numbers read to me in heavily accented English. My goal was to wait for a buzzer to sound, and repeat the numbers back in reverse order. We began with three numbers, then had several rounds of four numbers, five numbers, and so on.


It turns out I did quite well in this test, failing on one of the rounds of eight numbers. Several others managed the same as I did, although of course I had no frame of reference for how I had done, as no feedback was given after the test.

The next test was learning to take blood. I’m a little squeamish, and I paired up with Tim for this test. We practiced, and I was hitting the fake vein every time, but at that point I had no idea I would be asked to take my own blood!


When that was revealed, I first tried to take blood from my left arm (right-handed), however I must have knocked the needle when trying to get the container on the end of the tube and a bruise began to form. I had to try again, this time taking blood out of my right arm (left-handed!), and thankfully I managed it without problems.  Kevin Fong was on hand throughout this test, assessing our approach to learning.  Were we taking it seriously? Were we able to take in the strict series of instructions, process them and perform them correctly, all when under the pressure of knowing that it was our own veins we were stabbing with a needle?


Well, then came a room with a number of spheres sitting in them, roughly a metre in diameter. We were told remove our boots and laces, and get inside the spheres and wait for a set of individual instructions which would be passed through our breathing holes by Iya and Chris. My instructions said: Dear Suzie, your task is to lace your boots, put them on, and stand up after 20 minutes. The test has started when the lights go out.


Very shortly thereafter, the lights went out. I needed a strategy. I had to count to 1200 seconds, but I would probably lose count with the added distractions of lacing up and putting on my boots in the dark. I decided to count to 300, four times. Each time I got to three hundred, I would move my hair band, from my hair, to my right wrist, then my left wrist, then back into my hair for the final 300 seconds. I really wished I’d paid more attention to my boots in the preceding days!  How many eyes did my laces go through? I also knew that most people count time too fast, so I was determined not to rush. I heard some noise from the other pods at various points, but reached my count and stood up. I saw three others standing up, and two left in their pods, and looking back on who was where, I guess I stood up around 22.5 to 23 minutes. When Chris asked for our strategies and I told him mine, he and Iya laughed and said they’d wondered why I was doing my hair in the pod!

One of the most stressful parts of those first days was the uncertainty, and the waiting.  One of us would be asked to go for a test, out of the blue, and suddenly were in a room wth bright lights and being interviewed by Iya, or meeting Chris Hadfield for the first time while remembering numbers backwards.  There was a lot of waiting around, seeing others go for tests, and wondering how they were doing, what the tests were, what to expect.  Then a fellow candidate would come back into the room, perhaps smiling, perhaps crying.  That only added to the nerves and anticipation that the rest of us felt.  The tension was pretty high during those first few days.

I mentioned at the start of this post that our mobile phones were taken away from us.  In the hotels, the phones in the rooms were removed. We were separated from the support network we were used to, and had to stand and succeed, or fail, without family or friends.  This meant that we grew into a tight-knit group fairly quickly, particularly as many of us had so much in common, and we supported each other through the barrage of tests.

During the episode, Prash, and Derek were asked to leave The Process. I didn’t get to know Prash too well, but he gave a lovely speech when he left, reminding us to stick together throughout our time together and support each other all the way. Derek made us all laugh so much, and we were also very sad to see him leave us. Reality had hit; make a mistake, and you could be next to leave.

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