Rocketing ratings

Youku’s latest hit reality TV show sees celebrities train to be astronauts


Ready for lift off? Actress Zhang Yuqi stars in Space Challenge

According to folklore, Chang’e and her husband Houyi were immortals living in Heaven until a row with the Jade Emperor saw them banished to Earth. The pair found human life hard and miserable so Houyi went on a quest for an elixir that would reintroduce their immortality. He brought it home but his wife accidentally swallowed the whole potion and soon started to rise back to the heavens. She kept on floating until she landed on the moon. Houyi, meanwhile, was left to live as a common man for the rest of his life.

To this day, Chang’e is known in China as the goddess of the moon and the country’s space exploration programme has been named after her. Spacecrafts Chang’e-1 and 2, which were launched in 2007 and 2010 respectively, went into orbit around the moon (but did not land on it). Chang’e-3 did touch down in 2013.

Last Saturday, China announced that a rocket carrying the Chang’e-4 module had been launched successfully into space. It is reckoned that the lunar probe will land on the far side of the moon early next year, providing the first close-up look at a part of the moon’s surface that faces away from Earth (it is said to be much more mountainous than the near side of the moon, albeit for reasons not yet understood).

It was not until 1959 that the Soviet Union secured the first shots of the heavily cratered surface of the moon’s ‘dark side’ but no spacecraft has ever landed there, generating excitement from the Chinese press. Previous missions from the Chinese have repeated various firsts from the Russians and the Americans. The Chang’e-4 mission is the first time that the Chinese can claim to be genuine pioneers in space.

With China’s space ambitions more expansive than ever, a broadcasting company has tapped into the mood to launch the first ‘reality’ space TV series. Called Space Challenge, the show is made by Alibaba-owned online streaming platform Youku and follows six celebrities, including action star Wang Baoqiang, actress Zhang Yuqi and former Olympic diving champion Tian Liang, as they experience the training programme of the country’s astronauts (or taikonauts, in Chinese parlance). If all goes well, the trainers say the cast could even be selected for a trip to China’s Mars simulation base in the Gobi Desert.

Training for a trip to outer space – even if it has been made a little less demanding for the celebs – is certainly not for the fainthearted. In the first episode, which was aired in late November, the group had to go through centrifuge training, which featured all six of them sitting blindfolded in a rotating chair for five minutes (real astronauts have to endure 15 minutes of centrifugal spinning, it was explained).

The cast were also subjected to underwater training to prepare them for extravehicular activity – things like spacewalks – in conditions of microgravity. Another skill the wannabe astronauts had to master: operating under severe sleep deprivation. The celebrity trainees were forced to stay awake for more than 30 hours before being told to complete a set of complicated drills.

The series has accumulated over 200 million views for its first three episodes and netizens have been quite impressed. “The show is not only fast-paced but also highly educating. There’s an element of sci-fi and also humour. I hope more shows like Space Challenge will become more and more popular,” one wrote.

Space Challenge is a show that combines science with imagination and positive energy,” the Global Times also gushed.

What makes the format different to other reality series is that it doesn’t try to put too much of the focus on the celebrities, treating them instead more like ordinary volunteers. “In the programme, the celebrities receive no flowers or applause. In fact, they are no different from ordinary people – they are merely volunteers. All the difficult tasks cannot be avoided. All their struggles, vulnerabilities and challenges were honestly presented without disguise,” declared People’s Daily.

The programme is actually part of the country’s “C Space Plan,” a project designed to provide a broader space education for Chinese teenagers. Also included in the initiative: a Martian simulation base in Gansu and a planned theme park to promote China’s space ambitions to the country’s youngsters.

Bigger picture China’s space programme has some major targets, such as to deploy a reusable launcher by 2021, introduce a super-powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than NASA has handled, establish a permanently crewed space station as well as send out a lunar rover to Mars.

China also wants to increase the number of manned missions in its space programme to around two a year. Its goal is to put a person on the moon and send an unmanned mission to Mars by 2025.

The space programme has also begun recruiting civilian astronauts, which is a departure from the practice of only drawing its recruits from China’s air force pilots. “We invite more passionate young people to join the recruitment process to help transform our nation into a space powerhouse,” Yang Liwei, deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said back in March.

Perhaps the experiences of the six celebrities on Space Challenge will encourage more of the public to reach for the stars….


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