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’.