Astronauts – Have you got what it takes?
Astronauts BBC2 Series.
Have you got what it takes!
Winner: Suzie Imber
Astronauts BBC2 Series.
Have you got what it takes!
Winner: Suzie Imber
Before filming started, I had wondered whether they might make us do the dunker. I couldn’t imagine that sitting in a metal container strapped to a chair with water rushing in around your ankles would be fun, but having never had to deal with this before, I didn’t have any idea how I would cope, and wasn’t confident during the briefing. I clung on to the fact that I felt the BBC probably wouldn’t allow us to drown, but there was definitely a possibility that I would not do well in the test.
The test was conducted in pairs, and I was paired with Hannah. We talked about what was facing us, and it was clear that this was going to be a tough test for her. Hannah is one of the most lovely people I have ever met; full of enthusiasm and always extremely supportive. We had become good friends as she’s a fellow mountaineer, and we swapped stories of wonder and disaster in the mountains. I wondered whether I had been selected to go with Hannah because of our friendship, and perhaps also because I was unlikely to panic.
We had been briefed to put one hand on our harness release, and the other on our exit and to brace for impact, when the capsule would hit the water and begin to fill. It would then roll, and our job here was not to panic, to wait until it was completely full of water, had rolled and stopped moving, then count to five and make our escape. It was important to push the exit out first, then release the harness, as we were disorientated and couldn’t see much, so we needed to be sure of our exit before we floated towards the ceiling and lost our way.
I was very happy to be paired with Hannah, and we prepared together for the test. Obviously Hannah’s claustrophobia was going to make the test difficult, but I felt that my job was to stay calm, and help her through the test as best I could, from the opposite side of the capsule.
While Hannah may have had trouble with the underwater escape part, she swims like a fish (as a serious hardcore triathlete) so if she could get over the water coming in, she would be fine with the escape part. We had to undergo four dunkings and escapes, with differing rotation profiles for the capsule during each one. It was un-nerving watching the water level rise, but Hannah and I got through that test together, as a team, and Hannah showed a level of bravery and courage that most of us will never have to demonstrate in our lives. For someone with claustrophobia this test is probably their worst nightmare, however she performed it four times, escaping and choosing to return to the capsule each time for another go. She described it as having given her the opportunity to face something that she had previously avoided, and thereby was using it as a learning experience. What an incredible person; I was upset to see her leave after the test, and I missed her from that moment until the end of my time on the show.
Next up, the Mars rover. I think it’s safe to say that this wasn’t a highlight for me, although I gather I was mid-pack in their eventual ranking of the test. The goal was to drive a Mars rover into a simulated cave, find some symbols that had been drawn onto rocks using a UV camera, then escape the cave within twenty minutes. This is actually quite similar to how the problem of tackling exploration on Mars might be addressed, as sending people into the cave could mean exposing them to an unacceptable level of risk. Having said that, signals take several minutes to reach Mars from the Earth, so the delay in the response of the robot, and in the picture coming back from the camera would cause significant problems. Furthermore, it’s not clear how the robot would be controlled when it had entered the cave and lost connection with the controller outside.
The controls of the rover were on a computer screen, with a read-out of the current velocity etc. We couldn’t directly see the rover, but we could see feeds from the camera, and a trace overlaid on a map of where we had been. Headphones playing space-themed music were placed over our ears so we couldn’t hear what the experts were saying, and we were given twenty minutes to complete the test.
I struggled almost immediately, as the scene that faced me looked nothing like a cave. It was simply the end of a rectangular room with rocks placed on the sand on the floor. The map I was using however showed a cave entrance which broadened out into a large cave beyond. I spent several minutes trying to relate the map to what I was seeing through the camera. My strategy was to go for the right hand side, see how many targets I could get, and at the 12 minute mark, turn and head for the exit. I reasoned that if I had taken 8 minutes to get to that point, plus having searched for the targets, then 12 minutes should be plenty of time to escape. The last thing that Kevin said to me before the test began, was not to reverse the rover unless I could see behind me. This was a crucial instruction, because the camera had a 120 field of view centered on straight ahead – there is no way to look backwards.
I enjoy mountain marathons, which I race with my lovely friend Michelle. We are given a map with some checkpoints on them and have to reach as many as we can within a 7 hour window on each day, carrying everything we need for a weekend out in the hills. I am well aware of how tempting it is to go for that last 20 pointer…
Without Michelle to tell me not to, I must admit, I was tempted to look for too long. I started my turn with just over 11 minutes of time left. Then I realized the rover really can’t turn. I initially began to reverse, before remembering Kevin’s instruction. I then tried to turn sharp left, which didn’t work, and attempted a three-point turn, which also didn’t work. I was helpless as I watched the clock tick down, and I eventually got the rover stuck in the cave. I was frustrated with myself for not having driven the rover in a better circle (as Jackie did), or just reversed all the way out (as James did). Fair play to those guys – they absolutely nailed the challenge, and I lost the asset. Tim was very sweet, and tried to make me feel better, but I was disappointed in my performance. James H left us following this test, and we were all sad to see him leave. He had a way of bringing us all together and making us laugh.
Finally, the family and friends ‘challenge’. During many of our challenges, the attribute being tested was not the obvious one. For the helicopter and taking blood in episode one, it was more about our approach to learning, whether we could follow complex instructions, and whether we improved with time that was really assessed. Here, it was harder to see what was being tested. Social skills are really important, of course, especially when living in small spaces, so there must have been some aspect of our ability to socialise that they were looking at. I know I didn’t do a great job of introducing my twin brother, but I said much more than was displayed during the show, where time is always against the production team, and often editing is required. However that test went, it was lovely to see him, and I remember excitedly recounting the story of the tests up to that point, telling him all the amazing things we had done. When it was time for him to leave, he said ‘Suz, you’ve got this’.
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.
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.
Looking back on it now, I’m still not quite sure how I ended up as one of the candidates on the BBC 2 television series Astronauts: Do you have what it takes?
Last November, I was half-way through a three month expedition to the Andes Mountains. I had teamed up with my climbing partners Max and Pedro to ascend twelve of the most remote mountains over 6,000 metres to be found in South America. To get to these mountains we drove up rivers, through deserts, and even through a gold mine! We were stranded in the mountains without equipment after being abandoned by our mule drivers, we destroyed poor Conway (the Landrover) in a whole new range of ways:
We absolutely flew up some mountains, waded almost up to our waists in snow on others, and had a series of wonderful adventures. (More tales of our last expedition can be found here: Andes Expedition 2016 )
I also collected quite a bit of data both for the team back in Leicester and for colleagues around the world. I deployed a radiometer, to measure the balance between incoming solar radiation and radiated heat from the Earth’s surface for Leicester’s Earth Observation Science group. I also collected many samples containing extremophiles which are bacteria that are capable of surviving in these extreme mountain environments. At the University of Leicester we are developing instruments designed to detect life on other planets, so we need samples of similar life on Earth! Here are some photos of some of the experiments I set up while I was there:
Half-way through though the 2016 expedition, I was in a very small town in Argentina called Fiambala. While I was there, I was able to get wifi and check my work emails, and a door began to swing open for me that I hadn’t even dreamed existed. An email had been sent to me at the University highlighting an advert by the BBC for a programme about astronaut training. We were down from the mountains for only 24 hours, but I opened and completed the short form, asking me questions about my fitness levels, education and so on. I returned to the mountains the following day, and set aside the ‘astronaut thing’, without telling anyone about it.
A couple of weeks later we briefly returned to sea level to resupply, and I had an email from the BBC asking for more information and a skype interview. I replied with some details, but there was no way I had the bandwidth for skype in the remote Argentinian Andes! This appeared only to increase their interest, and, eventually, I reached a town large enough to have good connection, from which (with snow-capped mountains in the background) I skyped the BBC and had a chat.
Upon my return in January I was straight back into undergraduate lecturing, and alongside that, the BBC had a series of selection processes for me to undertake. I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing, or why I was suddenly cancelling climbing plans that had been in place for months!
Eventually, shortly before The Process began (with a capital T and a capital P), the BBC informed me that they had selected me as one of the candidates. Suddenly it all became very real! They sent me a train ticket and asked me to pack my bags.
The University term had not yet finished, and although they didn’t know what I was doing, my colleagues rallied round and covered the few remaining teaching commitments I had. The only people I could tell were the Head of my College and the Head of Department, both of whom were very supportive and gave me permission to take leave for an undisclosed period of time. I was off! The next adventure had begun!
Tony got us all together for a photo, so we could wish Suzie every success!
We didn’t all get our feet off the floor, we will try harder in 2016!