What if you had the opportunity to train and go to space using little more than your smartphone? That may sound impossible, but a company called Space Nation is hoping to make it happen.
Space Nation is a Finnish startup with ambitions of shaking up the space industry. More specifically, it wants to make space accessible to everyone. Usually, would-be astronauts need at least a degree in engineering, mathematics, or another science field before they can even think about applying to NASA. But with Space Nation, the road to space begins with a free app download.
The Space Nation Navigator app was developed in partnership with Axiom Space, a commercial space startup that helps train NASA astronauts, and NASA itself. The company took real NASA records, images, and video, and translated it all into a digital training curriculum that takes the form of games, social missions, and fitness challenges. There are 13 different training topics in the app, ranging from the science of space to the dangers of spaceflight, and each lesson focuses on the physical, mental, and social elements of going to space.
"We are always looking for new ways to educate the public about the benefits and challenges of human space exploration," says Mike Read, manager of commercial space utilization at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We hope an app like Space Nation's will help global users better understand what it takes to be an astronaut in a fun and entertaining way."
The "mind missions" are particularly challenging. They require multitasking, delegation skills, and crisis management. They "made my brain feel like I was attempting to solve Sudoku puzzles on repeat," writes Brenda Stolyar at Digital Trends. The physical missions require you to actually get moving, and the app will track your progress via GPS. Various "badges" show your accomplishments.
The app serves as a sort of first hurdle for wannabe astronauts to clear. One hundred players who perform particularly well in the app will be invited to attend an in-person training camp. From there, 12 of those 100 will be plucked to attend a 10-week astronaut boot camp. The first training exercise took place recently in Iceland, where "moon-like scenery" was meant to simulate a space-like environment. Here's a quick preview:
Participants had to try to "save" a fellow astronaut from a cave, which mirrored a similar simulation inside the Navigator app. The idea is to take what players have done online and translate it into actionable, in-person skills. Eventually, the company wants to send "the best of the best" on a real trip to space.
Sending a civilian to the stars is a lofty (and expensive!) goal, and it's reasonable to be skeptical. "Right now, Space Nation is an app, an idea and little more," writes Jamie Rigg at Engadget. But Space Nation's true mission is about more than launching a civilian into orbit. The company wants to break down the barriers to space training by literally putting the technology and training NASA astronauts receive into the hands of anyone with a phone. The company believes many of the skills astronauts gain — from wellness to team building to cultural understanding — are 21st century life skills that all people should have, whether or not they go to space.
"There's a self-improvement and self-development core of everything we do," the company's co-founder, Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola, told Inc. "We can't send everyone to space, but these life skills taught in the app are beneficial for everyone."
The company is also focusing on youth outreach, partnering with a Finnish pre-school educational company called Fun Academy to develop school curriculum for the astronauts of tomorrow. "While Space Nation aims to send people to space and offer civilian astronaut training in the future, it is an equally important mission to educate all people of the importance of space exploration for living on Earth," says the company's chief marketing officer, Katja Presnal.
The company has so far raised $4 million through a crowdfunded investor campaign. While downloading the app on iOS or Android is free, in-app purchases could add up. Presnal says the app is currently in its soft launch phase, and the next big gaming cycle will start in August 2018. If you want to test your space survival skills, you can download the app here. Godspeed!