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Space Cadets - John C. Kirk

Dec. 26th, 2005

07:33 pm - Space Cadets

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I've recently been watching "Space Cadets" on Channel 4 (clearing out the backlog from my digibox), so now that it's finished I'll share my thoughts.

I was a bit dubious about the series at first, since I rarely watch "reality TV", and the premise seemed a little bit cruel. However, I do have an interest in space, and I also thought that it could be informative; I tend to be a bit gullible myself at times, so by seeing how other people get fooled that should make me more aware of those techniques if I encounter them myself. It's a similar principle to the hoax emails that go round saying "Forward this to everyone you know!" - people who are new to the internet tend to fall for that, whereas people with more experience tend to know better. There's also the wider aspect of social engineering in general, e.g. "This is an email from your bank - we've forgotten your account number, so please could you remind us what it is?" (borrowing the phrasing from a Dilbert strip), so again it can be useful to recognise the tricks.

Anyway, I set up my digibox to record the series, although I didn't get round to watching it for a while afterwards. Unfortunately, the box pretty much mangled the first episode (an intermittent problem) - I had it on in the background while I did DIY, but I wasn't able to get much of it. I think this may have affected the way I saw the rest of the episodes, since lots of my friends have commented on the way that the people were selected for suggestibility.

Regarding the ethics of the show, I think there is a tendency to say "Well, these people deserve it for being more stupid than me", but that does seem a little bit harsh. In fact, I do have to wonder how gullible the recruits really were. For instance, there was one scene where they all stand up and salute an inspirational poem that's read out in Russian; this is actually a recipe for toad-in-the-hole. It seems ridiculous (and funny) that they are paying their respects to lines like "add eggs and stir", but if it wasn't for the subtitles then I wouldn't have known any better. I'd say that my linguistic skills are probably better than average (varying degrees of competency in English, French, Latin, classical Greek, Esperanto, and Japanese), but I only know a few words of Russian, so I shouldn't really laugh at them for being in the same situation. This reminds me of something I heard a while back, talking about TV gameshows, and the techniques they use to make the audience at home feel smarter than the contestants - one trick is to display the answer before the contestants hear it (e.g. as a subtitle when the question is read out), so that the viewers can think "Well, yes, it's obvious - look at them puzzling over it!"

Actually, on the subject of gameshows, the only thing I found really annoying was when they announced who was going to go on the shuttle; more specifically, the long pauses before the names were read out. Despite his sterling work on "Tiswas", Chris Tarrant has much to answer for after "Who wants to be a millionaire?" The whole business of "Is that your final answer? Ok, you said X. Now let me see what the answer is." just irritates me rather than building suspense. There's some contest running on Magic FM at the moment, where people have to identify three voices, and the same thing happens: a person will phone in and give three names, then the DJ will say "Ok, you said [repeats three names]. Pause Now let me check the answers. Pause (Fx: rustling as if he's opening an envelope.) Pause If you're right, you've won £80,000. Pause And out of the three names, you got: Pause two right. Ok, thanks for calling, bye." When these things happen, I just sit there thinking "Get on with it!" - I will now turn off the radio whenever that slot comes on, and I stopped watching "Millionaire" for that reason. Bah. Anyway, I seem to have digressed a little - it did annoy me in "Space Cadets", but it was only a short segment out of the series as a whole, so it wasn't too bad.

On a similar note, I'm not a fan of "zoo" TV/radio (e.g. Chris Evans plus a bunch of sycophants who laugh at all his jokes), and this series did show a slightly worrying trend in that direction, but they kept it under control, so it wasn't too bad. The only other real flaw was when some of the episodes were badly edited, where they'd refer to things that we hadn't seen yet (e.g. the Richard and Judy broadcast).

On a more positive note, there were a lot of things that I thought were very funny. In particular, I liked:
* The balloon animals (that would probably a good party piece for me to learn sometime).
* The poetry ("sadder than a badger").
* The fake TV adverts (quite reminiscent of the "Charmed" cast doing intros for LivingTV).
* The "Russian" pilot getting really into the spirit of things with his method acting (e.g. fake proverbs) - he reminded me a bit of Pitr from "User Friendly".
* The "American" pilot doing a song and dance routine to keep the recruits distracted (it reminded me of Buffy doing juggling at Xander's wedding).
* The paid actors inadvertently sabotaging things ("these are the people who we are actually paying to keep things running smoothly!").
* Some of Johnny Vaughan's comments ("We're not space geeks - we don't know anything." "No shit.").

One interesting thing was when one of the recruits was doing his video diary, and said that he wasn't going over the top with studying etc., because he knew that he'd never be a rocket scientist, and besides which it would make more interesting TV viewing to have people playing snooker and talking to each other. My initial reaction was to decry this attitude, since I value academic study. However, on reflection I actually think that he had a point, and a lot of this does depend on what you want from a trip to space. For instance, just as you can travel on an aeroplane without knowing anything about the Wright brothers, I don't think that you need to know anything about Laika the dog in order to board a space shuttle. Similarly, if you're only travelling into Earth orbit, rather than making an interstellar journey, then you don't need to know about other stars/galaxies. Personally, I'm interested in the subject (e.g. I enjoyed the astrophysics module in my Physics A level), but it's fair enough if other people aren't.

More generally, I can see parallels in other areas. For instance, there's been a recent trend to view computers as appliances, so that you can stick one under your TV without having to understand how everything fits together inside it. I am quite capable of taking a PC apart and putting it back together again, so it's easy for me to dismiss the "idiots" who can't do that, or can't be bothered to learn. On the other hand, I wouldn't be able to dismantle/reassemble the engine on my motorbike, and it's enough for me to know that there are skilled mechanics who can do that for me.

This then relates to my views on diving. Looking at science fiction, there's a trend to view spaceflight as a a commodity, in the same way that we treat passenger aircraft now. For instance, in DS9 it's quite common for civilians to travel between Bajor (the planet) and the space station on shuttlecraft. Then in Bujold's novels about Vorkosigan's world, everyone who visits Komarr gets taught about wearing breathing masks outside the domes. Similarly, passengers who travel on interplanetary spacecraft (through wormholes) are given access to "bod-pods" (self-contained inflatable tents), and it was unusual for Miles to arrange special training for his wife and armsman. I'd see all of this as the equivalent of a PADI course - you get the basic training that you need, but you don't need to know everything about the spacecraft if you're not actually going to be piloting it. Mind you, I don't think that you really count as an astronaut if you're just sitting in the back looking out of the window, so we'll probably need a new term for that in due course.

When I saw the recruits putting on their spacesuits, I was actually quite impressed. Leaving aside the fetish gear, it was authentic, and it reminded me of when I did my first parachute jump in Durham. When we were at the airfield getting ready, I saw one of my friends wearing the full gear (boiler suit and loads of straps from the parachute harness), and I thought "Wow, you look really professional!" My second thought was then "Well, yes, I suppose that makes sense, because this is all real - we're not just playing here" (in contrast to the training, where we jumped off a vaulting horse to practice landing/rolling). So, I can imagine how that would make the recruits feel more confident.

Coming back to the issue of fooling the recruits, I didn't feel too bad for them since they would really be going off to do space training afterwards, which is certainly something I'd like to do. However, I did feel sorry for them when they were getting really enthusiastic about what was happening; in particular, I found that the view of Earth from orbit was very moving, even though I knew it was simulated, and I'd like to see the whole planet at once (e.g. in a holodeck prototype/total immersion cinema).

Paul did remind me of Joey (from "Friends") a bit, partly based on physical resemblance, but also in terms of personality - earnest and good natured, but not quite aware of everything that was going on. I did think it was interesting that he was partly creating the lie for himself, by saying things like "I can't do as many press-ups as I can on Earth" or "this apple isn't going brown as quickly as usual".

I also think that some of the factual mistakes are understandable. For instance, when they said "You won't experience zero gravity because you'll be in a low orbit", that matches my understanding of how things worked on SpaceShip One. Quoting from the BBC news site: "The X-Prize is for sub-orbital flights - short journeys in which weightlessness is experienced for just a few minutes as the craft falls back to Earth." As for anti-gravity, I'm happy to count that as a "meta-possibility", i.e. I'd say it's possible that it's possible, and so it was only implausible to see it in the program because I would expect to have heard about it if it had been developed.

Then there's the general trend of "lies to children", where you unlearn knowledge as you get more advanced, e.g. where Einstein's equations for sub-atomic physics overrule Newton's classical laws. If it's reasonable to tell A level students that what they learnt at GCSE isn't entirely correct, then it seems reasonable to tell astronauts that the A level syllabus has also been simplified. (Although I'm guessing that none of the recruits actually took science A levels.)

The horizontal take off is certainly unusual, but I don't see any reason why it's intrinsically impossible - the main drawback is likely to be that it would require more fuel than a vertical take off (following a straight line rather than a corkscrew path). However, I may be displaying my own ignorance here, so please do correct me if I'm wrong. This actually reminded me of the old "Dan Dare" stories from the 1950s, and the more recent "Ministry of Space" series: "Orbital-1 will go up in 1950. It will be a plane that can be flown. We're not in the business of catapulting potatoes above the horizon. And I will be flying her. And I want the bloody cabin reinforced and pressurised! I am not going to space wrapped in tinfoil! I'm an English airman and I want to wear my bloody jacket and sit in a decent leather chair!"

There was the interesting comment that Johnny Vaughan made, when he said that they've actually believed that they were in space, and that's an experience that other people don't get when they sit in a simulator. I'd say that there's a parallel between this and parents telling their children about Santa Claus - a lie that makes people happy in the short term, even if it will upset them when they discover the truth later. For what it's worth (in case anyone has to give my consent for something like this in the future), I like to think that I can take a joke, and I don't mind my friends teasing me, but I really don't like it when people lie to me.

I also thought it was interesting when one of the recruits said (after the big reveal) that she liked to trust people, that she hadn't seen any reason to believe it was a trick, and that she wanted it to be true because she wanted to go into space. This reminded me of the tagline from "K-PAX": "He says he's from outer space. You'll want to believe him." When I discussed the film with my Durham friends afterwards, the conversation went like this:
Friend: "Do you think he was an alien?"
Me: "Yes"
Friend: "Well there's a shock..."

Mind you, for all my qualms about the ethical aspects of the series, I did think that it would be more entertaining for the audience if they hadn't broken the news quite as gently. One alternative would be to turn off all the lights in the studio, get the recruits to close their helmets, open the pod door into blackness, and then turn the lights back on. Still, their way was kinder, which is more important.

I had a look on the web, to see whether it would be feasible to actually do a "vomit comet" trip as a holiday, and the most useful site I found was:
That company charges $9895 for the week long trip. (According to a currency converter this is equivalent to £5711.) So, it's a bit out of my range at the moment, but it is in the realm of "just about possible", rather than "millionaires only".

Billy was wondering whether the series might actually be a double-bluff, e.g. whether the recruits were all actors and this was a hoax for the viewers. Although this turned out not to be the case, there was another series I saw recently called "Bamboozled", which had a similar premise - the idea was for the three contestants to make themselves famous, e.g. by getting a double page spread in "The Sun" for a fictitious business (hiring herself out to men to make their girlfriends jealous).

Anyway, all in all I thought that it was an interesting series, and worth watching.

I'd also recommend the "Space Station 3D" film; I saw this at the IMAX in the Science Museum a few years ago, and it was very good. One scene that stuck in my mind was when a relief crew arrived, and made a joke about "we come bringing women!" - they were passing up new supplies by floating them upwards (the wonders of freefall), and then one of the female astronauts came floating up too, while sitting cross-legged. It's hard to describe in words, but however good special effects are on TV, it still doesn't look quite like the real thing, e.g. people are more relaxed when they're not hanging from a harness.

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[User Picture]
Date:December 26th, 2005 08:00 pm (UTC)
ive got a ballon animla book you can borrow and indeed ballons and a pump
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Date:December 26th, 2005 08:17 pm (UTC)
Ah, that would be helpful, thanks. I also wouldn't mind borrowing your K-PAX books, if that's ok :)
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Date:December 27th, 2005 12:52 am (UTC)
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Date:December 27th, 2005 12:32 am (UTC)
They really did get to go off and do space training afterwards? Hmm. I suppose that makes it not so bad, then. But yeah, the whole premise of the programme made me very uncomfortable.

Regarding "lies to children", I do always make sure to tell my students if they're learning a simplified model of something, that they'll have to "unlearn", or rather, build on later. Because it totally bothered me to learn the octet rule in GCSE chemistry, and then get to A-level and find out that actually, the higher atomic shells can hold up to 18 electrons, and then up to 32. I'd much rather tell them "this is the correct answer for your GCSE exam paper, but if you go on with chemistry, you'll learn it's not actually true", so it's not a horrible surprise. Most teachers don't bother with this, which I think is sad.

I haven't seen the film K-PAX, but I *loved* the book - it made me cry repeatedly, in a good way. I haven't dared pick up the sequels in case they spoil the ending of the first book. I just adore the fact that at the end of K-PAX, you have no way of knowing whether prot was "just" another personality of Robert, or if he was actually an alien, you can go with whichever explanation you prefer. I wonder whether the sequels clarify things one way or the other - if they did, that would certainly spoil them for me.

Anyway, just wittering about various things. I'll get round to answering that question of yours eventually :)
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[User Picture]
Date:December 27th, 2005 12:57 am (UTC)
I do always make sure to tell my students if they're learning a simplified model of something

good. we were still havign this in physics at degree level. although i think
they did sometimes say that this may not be the full answer to what is happening.
It also happened with my a-level physics. They have to teach the sylabus so either though by the time we did the exam the top quark had its existence confirmed we still had to answer as if its existence was still only a theory.

i dont think they ruin it. but i cant actaully remember properly
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Date:December 27th, 2005 01:13 am (UTC)
They really did get to go off and do space training afterwards? Hmm. I suppose that makes it not so bad, then. But yeah, the whole premise of the programme made me very uncomfortable.

Yes, all of the "cadets" got paid at least 5000 quid. The three who went in the shuttle simulator got 25000, and also get sent off to Star City (in Russia) to do training and experience weightlessness in the "vomit comet" (the aircraft that flys up and does steep dives). However, none of them actually get to go into orbit.

Regarding "lies to children", I do always make sure to tell my students if they're learning a simplified model of something, that they'll have to "unlearn", or rather, build on later.

As Bob said, I think that's very good. I do something similar if I simplify computer explanations for non-IT people, e.g. saying "roughly speaking ..." or "that's not quite how it works, but it's near enough for your purposes". The actual "lies to children" quote is a phrase that appears quite often in the "Science of Discworld" books (in case you haven't read them), although you may have encountered it elsewhere.

(By the way, is it just me/my LJ stylesheet, or is the "quote" option for comments pretty much useless on its own? There's no clear way to differentiate the quoted text from the comment unless you add extra formatting.)
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