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Space Cadets: The Biggest Reality TV Prank in History

In 2005, a group of outgoing twenty-somethings were about to embark upon the opportunity of a lifetime. They had signed up for a reality TV series called Thrill Seekers and, after five months of auditions, they were told they were about to blast into space on a televised orbit of Earth.

Except they weren't. Space Cadets was one of the biggest pranks in television history. It was a meticulously executed stunt that would test how far the limits of reality could be pushed. The mission: convince nine people that they had blasted off from a Russian space camp into the galaxy on a five-day orbit of the Earth.

Their adventure began at night at an airport where they were informed for the first time that they would be competing to be the first space tourists from the UK. They were told to board a charter airplane that would fly them 3,000 miles to a Russian space tourism training facility known as S.T.A.R. Instead, they flew under the cover of darkness for 3.5 hours in a circular route over the North Sea. When they landed, they thought they were in Volgograd, Russia. In fact, they were still in the UK, just 38 miles from where they started.

The rest of their adventure would take place at a former United States military base near Ipswich known as Bentwaters Parks. It is not the first time it has been used for entertainment purposes. If you have watched the movies Fast & Furious 6Wonder Woman, or The Numbers Station, or the television program Top Gear, you have seen scenes filmed at the site.

A host of Russian-speaking actors were hired, every plug socket was changed to a Russian one, and the shelves were stocked with Russian-branded groceries, shower gel, condoms, and even cigarettes, just in case any of the crew who were filming near the contestants were smoking.

Upon arrival at the facility, they were greeted by what appeared to be armed Russian soldiers. They checked the paperwork of each of the individuals, even feigning to have misplaced the authorization for one person. The contestants were loaded onto a bus and escorted under heavy security past Russian military vehicles, tanks, guard patrols, and guard dogs to a separately-secured part of the base, known as S.T.A.R. — Space Tourism Agency of Russia. Here, the contestants were shown to the barracks that would be their home for the next three weeks.

Their "training" was less the intricacies of space science than an indoctrination of believing what was necessary to pull off the hoax. the instructor told the contestants that they were the embodiment of S.T.A.R.’s motto, “Это не ракетостроение (Eto ne raketostroyeniye).” He told them this translates as, “We, the adventurers.” In reality, it means, “It’s not rocket science.”

The highlight of the trip was going to be finally viewing the Earth from space. When the shutters were eventually lifted on the space station and the cast got to view the contestants were all close to tears, as they experienced what real-life astronauts call the "overview effect" - an almost philosophical shift in awareness that comes from viewing the Earth from space.

Although the entire world around them was manufactured, the genuine emotion it elicited was not. They believed they were experiencing the Earth from space, so in some sense, they were.

As the five days drew to a close, they were told they would be doing a spacewalk. Finally, a door on the pod was pulled open to reveal their families, the host of the show and the studio audience.

Space Cadets gave the world a fascinating look into a psychological principle called group dynamics, or more specifically, social proof. In 1951, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a number of experiments to determine how people are influenced by the thinking of others within their peer group. Since then, we've discovered that social proof influences everything we do - from our decisions about whether to recycle, how fast to drive, what products to buy, where to eat and whether to return our grocery carts to the corral.


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