Space Cadets: The Most Expensive Television Prank in Human History

In 2005, a group of young Brits on a reality TV show were preparing to fly into space at a Russian spacecraft base. That’s what they thought.

In a program called “Space Cadets,” broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4, 12 people signed up for a five-day flight to low Earth orbit. They went through a rigorous selection process. Not like NASA, where astronauts are selected on their fitness to fly, but specifically on their trustworthiness. The reason was that the group was not going to space. They weren’t even going to Russia. They were going to an old RAF base near Ipswich, which was filled with Russian food and cigarettes to make it seem more realistic.

Instead of flying to Russia, the plane just flew over the UK for four hours before landing.

At the base, the crew, including several of the actors playing the role of the moles, were trained before four of them were selected to take part in the final stage of the hoax.

“We talked to many psychologists about the kind of person who should go through this experience. A lot of people thought only idiots were capable of doing this,” producer Ben Caudell told the Guardian. “It really isn’t. It takes so-called receptive people to make it work: people who are intelligent, creative, love pranks and are willing to go along to get along.”

Throughout the “mission,” passengers had suspicions that something was amiss. After the simulated space flight, they discussed that they didn’t feel like they were launched into space on a rocket because they didn’t have the “belly-up” feeling that is common on roller coasters.

“It’s a spaceship,” said one participant.

But anyway, all of the participants couldn’t understand what was going on, and probably rationalized that if you were unlikely to get into space without astronaut training or a pile of money, it was even less likely that people would try to trick you into believing you had been to space. The crew was even shown video footage of Earth from space on displays, mistaking it for a porthole.

The crew became aware of the hoax while they were still on their space shuttle (really just a simulator) in space/Ipswich.

The crew, who found themselves as the object of the prank, took it rather calmly, despite some disappointment and embarrassment. Although the cadets had not been to space, they were offered a ride on a vomit comet to experience weightlessness. They were also given £5k, meaning they need about £245k more if they want to fly for real.

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