Space To Dance – wannabe astronaut Merritt Moore talks TV, ballet and physics

Merritt Moore, quantum physicist and professional ballerina, talks to Science Oxford’s Autumn Neagle ahead of appearing in ‘Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?’ a new  TV series launched on Sunday 20th August on BBC2, where twelve extraordinary candidates take on some incredibly challenging tasks to see who has what it takes to go into space.

We first met Merritt last year, when she got in touch about performing in one of our Science Cabarets, and were immediately intrigued by the sound of a quantum physicist ballerina who literally danced her PHD! We took Merritt up on her offer and have enjoyed watching her career go from strength to strength ever since. Merritt has worked incredibly hard to pursue her two passions simultaneously so it was a thrill to be able to chat with her ahead of the new TV show to find out how she does it all, and talk ballet in space..

Why do you want to be an astronaut and what made you apply to be a contestant?

I have dreamed of being an astronaut since I was very young, when I would identify constellations at night with my dad and read books about astronauts with my mom. This lead on to my fascination with physics, but I thought in real life that becoming an astronaut would never be a possibility and that aspiration slowly faded. The minute I heard of the BBC programme, the opportunity to rekindle that dream was too good to resist, I knew I had to go for it! A friend mentioned it at a dinner party, and I immediately jumped up from the table and applied from the hallway without thinking twice.

How did you prepare for the challenges?

It all happened so fast, there was no time to prepare! We found out that the twelve of us were selected just two weeks before the process started. In those short two weeks we took scuba diving lessons, gave multiple interviews and filmed our back-story. I was in the middle of writing my thesis, so those two weeks were frantic getting everything in order before I was cut off, with no phone or computer access for weeks. As a professional ballet dancer, sometimes training up to 8 hours a day, we use very specific muscles – if I had more time I would have hit the gym to improve my running endurance and do a bit more weight training!

Did you push yourself further than you imagined you could, mentally or physically?

This experience was on a whole other level of pressure, excitement, and nerves. Being mic’d up with cameras in my face while doing difficult tasks was very much out of my comfort zone, I’m used to quietly working on my own in a ballet studio or in a dark lab till late at night with no one else around. Also, to be given just one chance at tasks that I have never prepared for in my life was beyond intimidating! I have spent years perfecting the subtle nuances in ballet, and years understanding physics concepts, so to be given only a few minutes to digest a task and then perform under pressure (like hover a helicopter!) was really tough. My experiences in both physics and dance have given me a strong baseline of mental and physical strength, but astronaut training was so different from anything I have ever experienced.

Is it what you expected and what was the best part?

The whole process was definitely a shock to the system in a very challenging and invigorating way. I went into the process with an attitude of “expect the unexpected,” but still I was continually caught off guard. I got a thrill from the challenges and hope that this is just the beginning. The best part was that all the candidates were so wonderful. Everyone’s identity was kept a secret until we met on the first day on camera, and we all bonded on day one. They all turned out to be incredibly impressive and really down-to-earth, lovely human beings, who I look forward to knowing for the rest of my life.

Have you learnt anything new about yourself during the process?

That I have so much to work on! I realised that there are so many skills I would love to pursue (like learning to pilot a plane) and character traits that I want to continue to strengthen. It taught me I need to push myself to be vulnerable in uncomfortable situations in order to get stronger. The whole process was really motivating and inspiring.

You beautifully combine your two passions of dance and physics, how important is the connection of arts with science in today’s culture?

Thank you very much. Especially now when tech and AI can be used to automate most mundane tasks, imagination and creativity will be more important than ever, which will require combining the arts and sciences. In general though, I think it is silly to categorise people as either having an analytic brain or creative brain. Creativity is needed all the time in the lab to think of new solutions and to approach and visualise problems in a different way. And in the dance world, being analytic allows you to stretch the limits of your physical abilities while finding new, innovative forms of movement.

Do you have any advice for young people who might be thinking about pursuing their passions?

The motto I live by is “Nothing is impossible. Possible just takes time.” So when pursuing your passions, just know that it will take a lot of hard work but when there’s a will, there’s a way.

Can you imagine choreographing your first space ballet? What would it be like to perform ballet in zero gravity and can you dance in space?

That would be amazing! Wow…I really want to do this now. So many degrees of freedom, so many new forms of movement and ways to expand your body into space (literally!). In many ways ballet seeks to defy the laws of physics by bending one’s body or jumping and extending away from the earth. So, I think space could actually be a natural fit for ballet. I bet it would be absolutely beautiful. Where do I sign up?

You’ve studied at Harvard and Oxford, danced for the Zurich, Boston and English National Ballet and now TV – what’s next on the horizon?

I’ve started piloting lessons (although it probably means I’ll also have to get better at driving cars as well…sigh) and I‘d like some hands-on experience as a firefighter or a NGO/hospital volunteer. At the moment I am working on a dance piece with robotics and the London Contemporary Ballet Theatre that will be at the V&A next month. I’m also pursuing a virtual reality project fusing physics and dance based in Korea, and I’m participating in a film project in New York in October. Finally, I’m brainstorming a children’s book series with my sister about a dancing physicist focusing on empowering young girls (we’re new to this, so if anyone has tips or suggestions we are all ears!).

We’re looking forward to working with Merritt on her ballet-in-space, one day in the future.. (Nothing is impossible. Possible just takes time!) – in the meantime, be sure and tune into BBC2 from Sunday 20th August at 9pm to find out how she got on in the race for space!

Find out more about Merritt @physicsonpointe on Instagram & twitter and visit her website www.physicsonpointe.com

And if you enjoy the TV show, keep a look out for some space-inspired events coming up this autumn with Science Oxford, and don’t miss your chance to meet a very special space VIP coming to Oxford this November. Details to be announced soon.

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