cientist, mountaineer and endurance speaker, Suzie Imber, sat down in this interview to reflect on her success on, Astronauts: Do You Have What it Takes?, a BBC2 competition from 2017. Suzie also revealed the challenges faced by high-altitude mountaineers and how she persevered to succeed.
How did it feel to when you won the BBC2 show, Astronauts: Do You Have What it Takes?
“I would say that my most overriding feeling when they announced my name was complete shock. I was completely convinced that I was not going to win. I remember thinking to myself, when they announced the person’s name, ‘I’m going to turn and hug whichever person just won, because it’s not going to be me.’ I didn’t know which of them it was going to be because they both had amazing qualities, but I was just sure it wasn’t me.”
“So, when my name was read out, I didn’t even really know how to react. There’s a moment where I’m just standing there, shocked, before I actually reacted and started smiling because it had been such a long process. There had been 44 tests that we did over six weeks and it was so gruelling and so draining, that to finally be at the end of it was an overwhelming feeling.”
What made you want to take part in the show?
“I didn’t grow up wanting to be an astronaut. A lot of the others, when asked about their earliest memories, would be able to hold a photo or drawing they made of themselves as an astronaut. It wasn’t a lifelong dream that I wanted to see fulfilled.”
“I found out about it while I was climbing in South America. I was away for about 3 months, and I came down from the mountains for one day to get food and fuel. I had an e-mail saying from the BBC saying, ‘do you want to be an astronaut?’ I opened this e-mail and just sent a response saying, ‘yes, sure, fine.’”
“I was interested because I wanted to find out what the testing was, what they were really looking for in their astronaut selection. There hasn’t been an astronaut selection for so long and the last one I was ineligible for – I wasn’t experienced enough and so I hadn’t really put a lot of thought into it.”
“I felt that it had been a really long time since I’d been tested. You’re tested as a kid continually and you hate it, then you become an adult and you’re not challenged in the same way. I just wanted to adventure and explore that, and this was just an amazing opportunity too. To try things like centrifuge and microgravity, things that you can’t even pay money to go and do.”
“I had real doubts as well about the process. I had this real fear that It would be too much to the reality television side and not enough to the science side; that they may set us all up to fail, like Big Brother, and it would all turn into a reality television nightmare. I didn’t have any desire to do that. My greatest fear was that you really lose control of how you’re portrayed from the point at which you sign the forms and go in front of the cameras…”
“They could have made me look amazing or terrible by picking different footage, I was nervous about that. But it was BBC Science that were doing it and that’s really what reassured me. I had confidence and faith in their motivation, and they were very reassuring about it. I had some doubts, but they were massively outweighed by the opportunity.”
How do you prepare yourself and overcome those physical challenges when you’re climbing?
“The physical challenges that you face in the mountains depends on where you are. I have climbed the Himalayas, the Andes and Alaska…
“In Alaska, the main challenges are associated with the extreme cold. Up there, the fact that the ice starts so low, you’re sleeping on ice right from the bottom of the mountain ranges. If you want to go climbing, you’re pulling a sledge. The sledge is likely to weigh close to the same weight as the person who’s pulling it, or not far off.”
“To train for that, when I was living in Leicester, I had three car tyres attached to the back of my harness and I would just drag those car tyres around the park for hours, practising what it would feel like and using the muscles that I would be using to pull that sledge along mountain ranges like the Himalayas.”
“In the Andes, the snow starts much higher, so there’s less pulling of sledges, but much more weight in your rucksack. For those, I wear my rucksack, fill it with bottles of water, then go for really long hikes carrying bottles of water.”
“I learned a really important lesson there. The first time I did it, I filled it with a load of books: the complete works of William Shakespeare and the Oxford English Dictionary to make it heavy. But it turns out that I’m really attached to those books and when it got really hard, I couldn’t just ditch them. Whereas if you fill it with water, you can always pour the water out halfway if you find you’re struggling. So, lesson learned on that front.”
“In general, really high levels of fitness and good routines of cardiovascular exercise are really important, your lung and heart health have to be one of the most important things.”