Amidst the stars

Amrita Prasad
Sunday, 8 April 2018

Helen Thomas, executive producer, Sony BBC Earth’s Astronaut — Toughest Job In The Universe, which premieres today, talks about the show

NASA, spaceship, a trip around the galaxy, observing meteors from close quarters, landing on a different planet — everything about being an astronaut gives you an adrenaline rush. Perhaps, every time you watch Interstellar or The Martian, you may wonder what it takes to be an astronaut. The task is perilous, daunting and requires a deep knowledge of science and space which makes it a tough profession, but is fascinating as well. 

Sony BBC Earth’s Astronaut — Toughest Job In The Universe, which airs today (April 9, at 10 pm), follows 12 ordinary people as they undertake a demanding training regime to prove they’ve got what it takes to become an astronaut. The candidates push themselves to the limit, taking on challenges including surviving the forces of a simulated space launch in a centrifuge and a ride on-board the infamous ‘vomit comet.’

Here’s chatting up Helen Thomas about the show:  

Tell us about the concept of the show? 
I think a lot of people have secretly wanted to be an astronaut but could never be one. While working closely with Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station, on different series, I told him that even I secretly aspired to be an astronaut when young but couldn’t manage to become one. He told me that when he first dreamt of becoming an astronaut, there was no Canadian space agency. But he held on to his dreams and that was really interesting. I wanted to find out how many ordinary people wished to become spaceman/ spacewoman and how many are there who could actually become astronauts and that’s how the concept of the show was born. 

Can you elaborate on the selection process for the contestants?
We had fixed a format on choosing the 12 contestants out of almost 2,000 applicants. Hadfield and the production team selected 12 and we put them through tests that astronauts basically have to go through. We tested them on various scales and parameters such as the ability to fly a helicopter in 15 minutes, how quickly they learnt the skill and applied it and, most  importantly, how they dealt with failure. We also assessed their fitness levels and tested their memory. We had to test them to find out whether they were claustrophobic, how adept they were in facing their fears, their alertness and knowledge of space.

Besides these, we also had to evaluate them on the basis of other factors — how well they mixed with each other in a social situation and tested every aspect of their personality. Hadfield helped us a lot in this entire process and made it more accurate and easier as he had been an astronaut himself. Apart from him on board, we had a doctor who looked after their physical performance, and a psychologist who assessed their mental ability. Before we started the show, we had to ensure certain things about the contestants — whether they were mentally capable of getting through the process that too on television, so had to make them comfortable doing the tasks in front of the camera. Their physical fitness was evaluated by doctors to know if they were healthy and fit enough to undergo the process.  

Do you believe that an astronaut’s job is the toughest in the universe?  
I think it is a very interesting job because it requires all of you in it. Mostly in other jobs, you work mentally or physically or required to use both and there are times when you can simply relax. But being an astronaut means you are working every moment. When you are at a space station, you are constantly thinking about work, doing work and also being aware of what might befall. The job requires an extremely great amount of personal resourcing and intelligence, you should be able to use your intellect in the best possible way. You also need to be emotionally intelligent. I truly think it is the toughest job in the universe.  

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