How realistic is Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?

The BBC show has a lot in common with real-life astronaut testing programmes but there are some differences - and in some ways it's even tougher

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On the face of it, BBC2’s Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? may look like another ‘job application from hell’ contest that doesn’t always reflect the profession in hand (looking at you, The Apprentice). But it’s not.

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The competition, in which 12 candidates battle for a referral from Canadian International Space Station veteran Chris Hadfield, goes the extra light year to reflect as accurately as possible the selection process used by the European Space Agency (ESA).

How do we know? Unfortunately, we’ve been too busy watching TV to apply for the space programme ourselves, but we have spoken to somebody who has: Dr Kevin Fong, a judge on Do You Have What It Takes?. The space medicine specialist attempted to join the ESA in 2008, and although unsuccessful has worked with NASA to help develop the world’s first orbital ambulance.

“This show isn’t a simple reality contest,” claims Dr Fong. “We went to huge lengths to represent a selection programme based on the ESA application criteria. We didn’t make it easy for participants.”

However, while the show takes a giant leap in creating an authentic astronaut recruitment programme, it takes a few small steps away from the reality actual candidates encounter. How? Strap yourself into our astronaut Q&A to land on the truth.

How realistic is the calibre of candidates in Do You Have What It Takes?
In short: very. “Space agencies are searching for people with two degrees, those that have lived abroad and have shown they’ve handled considerable risk. And the candidates in the show certainly display these credentials,” explains Fong.

Take Merritt for example, a Harvard graduate and Oxford University quantum physicist who has danced with the English National Ballet and Zurich Ballet. Then there’s Royal Air Force Pilot Kerry, who possesses a masters degree in Geophysics, alongside a penchant for triathlons. And there’s also urological cancer surgeon and mountaineer Prash. And tri-lingual nuclear engineer Derreck. And… well, you get the idea: the bar hasn’t been lowered for TV, with each contestant on the show flaunting ‘the right stuff’.

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If the candidates are so good then why didn’t they apply to the real European Space Agency?

An interesting question with a brutally blunt answer: the ESA hardly ever recruits new astronauts – the agency only considers new candidates every 10-15 years. That’s one hell of a long countdown.

The space agency hasn’t hinted at when budding astronauts can next apply, but their last selection process (in which Tim Peake and five other candidates became astronauts) was in 2008. So until applications open again, Do You Have What It Takes? could be a vital way for hopefuls to stand out.

So, how many people actually applied for the show?

As you’ve probably guessed, a lot of budding astronauts saw Do You Have What It Takes? as a major opportunity. “We received over 3,000 applications and that’s a giant amount considering all our candidates were UK-based,” explains Fong. “When the European Space Agency opens their selection process, they receive 10,000 initial applications from around the continent.”

So, although the UK-based hopefuls faced more opposition from inside the country, they faced less competition overall.

How real are the tasks in the show?

The first challenge candidates face in Do You Have What It Takes?: hover a helicopter after only a few minutes training. And no, it’s not a task Dr Fong was asked to tackle during his astronaut selection process in 2008.

But that’s not to say the ESA wouldn’t use such a trial in future. Because recruitments happen so rarely, veteran astronauts like Commander Hadfield have plenty of time to design innovative new ways to examine candidates. “There’s very little ways you can train for specific challenges in astronaut selection because people like Chris are always inventing new tasks,” explains Dr Fong.

And even if a challenge isn’t completely new, it may include an unseen slant. For instance, when Dr Fong applied for the European Space Agency, one memory test required him to listen to a string of random numbers (read out in heavily-accented German) and repeat them in reverse. And in Do You Have What It Takes? Hadfield asks candidates repeat up to six digits in reverse while stepping up and down on a small platform.

But whether Hadfield made this task tougher is up for debate. “I actually thought my experience was more challenging,” says Dr Fong. “I didn’t have a step to contend with, but I had to remember up to 20 such numbers. And, unlike the show, they didn’t tell me how many digits would appear – as soon as there was a bleep I had to repeat back as many numbers in reverse as I could without hesitation.”

And that’s as headache-inducing as it sounds. Take these numbers: 84672974726475849371. Now, close your eyes and try and recount that sequence in reverse. We’ll eat our space helmets if you managed over 7.

Can you really be thrown out of astronaut selection at any time?

One characteristic that makes Do You Have What It Takes? stand out from other reality shows is that contestants may be asked to leave the process at any time. No boardroom talks. No endearing announcement from Mel and Sue. If your scores are too low, you go.

And that’s very similar to what happens in real astronaut recruitment, with candidates jettisoned at any point. But the TV show does have one major difference with the reality. “We were a bit kinder sending home candidates,” says Dr Fong. “We talked through with them why they had been removed from the process, but in the real selection you don’t know exactly where your faults lie.”

How long does real astronaut selection actually take?

It’s hard to gauge because – you guessed it – astronaut selections are so rare. But the show’s six weeks on-camera selection process was much shorter than the months normally taken by the ESA.

However, hopefuls on the show didn’t have it easier as their process was much more condensed. “The ESA may call candidates in for two days of training and then send them home for five days before they’re required again. In our show, however, candidates were tested flat out,” says Dr Fong.

So, did the show skip any stage of the selection process?

Just one: the regular medical examinations were blasted out of the process. Although the candidates’ physical fitness was thoroughly assessed through the six weeks, the show didn’t subject them to in-depth bodily fluid testing. And we don’t know about you, but that’s fine with us: ‘routine urine samples’ is not a phrase well-suited to Sunday night TV.

Are candidates really judged on their microexpressions?

Yes, and you better stop looking so surprised about it if you want to be an astronaut. Although it may seem harsh that cognitive engineer Dr Iya Whiteley (below) analyses contestants micro-expressions on a second-by-second basis on the show, that’s exactly what she does for the European Space Agency. In fact, the Human Behaviour Performance course she helped developed was used to test a certain Tim Peake.

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Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? is on 8pm Sunday, BBC2