Becoming an astronaut is the childhood dream of many. It requires excellent physical and mental prowess, specialized skills (science degrees and/or piloting experience), and the ability to pass certain tests and training. This is the traditional way, but it may soon not be the only way. Finnish company Space Nation wants to change how we think about space travel.
If getting to space becomes easier and cheaper, there will be more and more people soon floating over our heads. For a space economy to thrive, you’ll need people to do the plethora of jobs, and it won’t be possible for all of them to go through extensive training. Therefore, we need to make sure people don’t miss out on the opportunities and benefits of such an endeavor.
“All the benefits of going to space should become accessible to everyone. Everyone should be able to take part in that," Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola, CEO of Space Nation, told IFLScience. "We need a broader audience. We need everyday people more involved with space."
By next year, Space Nation plans to send one hard working person on a suborbital flight, and by 2020, they hope to be regularly sending a few people a year on such flights. In that same year, they hope to select a candidate for another exciting venture – an orbital flight to take place in 2022.
To select candidates and reach a broader audience, Space Nation came up with an astronaut training program. The company developed an app, called Space Nation Navigator, that helps you gain the skills you need in space through a series of games, quizzes, and accessible physical tests. To delve deeper than just collecting badges on the app, they also plan to give the potential astronauts a chance to train in special boot camps on location. A good way to go from the virtual to the real.
We went with Space Nation to Iceland, where we were given the opportunity to experience their full astronaut training program. Iceland was chosen because it's one of the locations where the Apollo astronauts trained. Let's just say its incredible sights really made us feel like we were on a different planet.
The idea behind the boot camp is simple: put together a small group of strangers and give them tasks that challenge them physically and mentally, see how they work as individuals and as a team, and give them challenges that are astronaut-like or seem completely unrelated. All of these tasks have one goal in mind – make the individual understand that becoming an astronaut is not just a childhood dream, but that it could soon become a reality.
Space Nation prepared six challenges for our team. The first was about dexterity in a full spacesuit while following instructions remotely. We had to build an Ikea lamp and, let me tell you, they are difficult to build in the comfort of your own home let alone on a mountain in Iceland with gale force winds, without the instructions and with pieces flying away. Clearly a lesson in patience.
But patience is a good skill to have, as we found out on another challenge. We had to pilot a tiny rover, developed by American company CubeRover to be sent to the Moon in the next few years, in these complicated conditions.
The quality of the camera was set on the lowest setting and the rover waited for a few seconds after you gave it a command before moving, to simulate the signal crossing huge distances. The rover wasn’t easy to maneuver under these conditions, but when you think about how you’re driving a machine that will go to the moon, you can feel pretty smug about it – even when you run over the little target you were supposed to “just” approach and accidentally break it in two. Oops.
Astronaut training is not just about technical skills, it is also about facing your fears. The team surprised us with a paragliding lesson on top of a volcanic ridge. This was both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
Space Nation also focused on skills that can be important here on Earth. We were taught basic survival skills, first aid techniques, and how to approach different dangerous situations. This might not seem relevant to astronauts, but it mattered to the crew of the Voskhod 2, who landed in Siberia and were stranded for two days. So, as always, it's best to be prepared.
The final treat was meeting with NASA astronaut Greg Johnson, the pilot of the last ever Space Shuttle flight. He told us about his experience in space and made it sound even better than we imagined.
“The space experience was a milestone moment in my life that I’ll never forget,” Johnson told IFLScience. “When you look at our beautiful planet below, the photographs don’t do it justice. It’s an amazing sight to see the Sun come up every 45 minutes. And looking down you know that the Earth is just a big spaceship that we live on. A special place. We should take care of our ship and take care of our crewmates.”
He told us that the tasks we did in Iceland were similar to what astronauts do and he even compared going to the International Space Station to a big camp – there’s the teamwork, the division of roles, and testing one’s limits. He wants more people to experience this, which is why he became involved with Space Nation.
“I believe in the mission of us as a civilization going out into space, and it’s not just up to the US or Finland or Russia, but to all of us living on spaceship Earth. We are still in the early phase right now,” Johnson explained. “We need to figure out how to get the best skills and the best motivations for it. We are all different and we can all help. It takes teamwork.”
As Vähä-Jaakkola explained, Space Nation is not just about prepping people to go to space. They want to create a community of people that understand the importance of space to everyday life. Most of our communications pass through space tech, and we need public awareness about its importance and the potential it can offer. If you like the sound of that, there's an easy next step for you to take. Help this mission and take your first “giant leap” towards space by downloading the Space Nation Navigator app.