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TECHNOLOGY

This App Could Win You a Trip to Outer Space

Two entrepreneurs in Finland have partnered with NASA to train astronauts and spread positive social change. Oh, and send a (very dedicated) regular joe into orbit.

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BY Christine Lagorio-Chafkin - 17 May 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Clicking on the pink-to-orange ombr Space Nation Navigator app icon opens up a slate of missions. A "Mind Mission" entails a mobile game where "You've lost all contact with ground control. Your mission is to safely bring the spacecraft to Earth inside the landing zone." Using your phone as a controller, with help from the device's gyroscope, you navigate toward bases and hover over them to amass points.

Another challenge is a "Body Mission," where a meteor is heading for your neighborhood. "Head outdoors and run as far as you can," the app commands, and then tracks your progress using your phone's GPS. Doing it will earn you 50 points, and maybe a spot on the leaderboard, where there are more than 1,000 players ranked.

This leaderboard is important. You could make it repeatedly during Space Nation's weeklong training "sessions" and prove to be one of the 100 best, most dedicated players. Those 100 will be narrowed down to 12 through additional training and texting, and the company will sent a dozen players to an intensive, 12-week in-person training program--to become an actual astronaut.

A portion of the in-person training will take place in Iceland, which has a long history of spaceflight training. The first group of Apollo astronauts traveled to Iceland in July 1965. It also has terrain that some former astronauts have deemed the most similar on earth to the surface of the moon.

But first, Space Nation is hosting a group of online influencers in Iceland beginning on May 14 to test out aspects of its future astronaut training--and lay the groundwork, of course, for online promotion of the app. There are also real-world sponsorship opportunities to be considered, as the 2018 competition may be televised--or may become a documentary of sorts. (The company is negotiating distribution.)

Of the 12 individuals selected for rigorous in-person training, which will likely take place next spring, one individual will come out on top--and, essentially, be given a ticket to space. Space Nation's first-year winner will probably only be sent on a parabolic flight--but for subsequent years of the program the company hopes to send individuals for stays on the International Space Station.

The goal: democratize space travel

Space Nation is in its early days, and many of the company's future plans--including how it will actually get someone into outer space--are roughly sketched. Its technology is a work in progress as well: the newly released iOS app itself is still buggy at times. So the business's ambitions sound a little fantastical, and cinematic, certainly. It's a little Ready Player One, and calls to mind Willy Wonka. But it's all in earnest.

The company now called Space Nation began as a far-fetched idea by Mazdak Nassir, an Iranian refugee who'd settled in Finland to become a filmmaker. His friend, Kalle Vh-Jaakkola, had grown up in rural Finland, looking up at the vast night sky, dreaming of outer space.

Nassir had proposed hosting an online contest, lottery, or competition that would culminate in sending one lucky winner to space. Vh-Jaakkola didn't think the idea was crazy: He saw a private-industry space-race in the works, with companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic working on rocket launches, and questioned why average citizens were being left out of the wonder of such new projects. "How can everyday people, like you and me, be part of it, and get the benefits of more space travel?" he pondered. To answer the question, in 2013 he created a company called Cohu Experiences--and before long began developing its Space Nation Navigator app. (The whole company later rebranded to Space Nation.)

But when Vh-Jaakkola sought connections to aerospace companies and participants around the world, he was met with unmeasured skepticism. He remembers being told it was crazy--and at times he felt ridiculed. But his sense of optimism won, and years later he tells people: "For me that's a sign you are doing the right stuff. If no one is laughing at you, you are doing something too boring."

Vh-Jaakkola and Nassir persisted in their attempt to "democratize space travel"--and over the years they forged partnerships with NASA and Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that trains would-be astronauts and is working to modernize, and eventually replace, the International Space Station. Axiom also offers civilian astronaut training, and sells space-travel packages. It will help Space Nation develop missions within its app, and training sessions on the ground.

Although qualifying for a trip to space will certainly be the draw for the many people around the world already participating in challenges and earning badges on the Navigator app, Vh-Jaakkola sees a broader educational mission as paramount for Space Nation. (The company declined to disclose user numbers, but a new user was ranked roughly 1,000th place, indicating the Apple app has more than 1,000 downloads.)

"There's a self-improvement and self-development core of everything we do," he says. "We can't send everyone to space--but these life skills taught in the app are beneficial for everyone." NASA astronaut trainers contributed some of the app's content, which includes missions in three areas--body, mind, and social--meant to stimulate different types of learning. The quizzes encompass aerospace history, physics, and social science, with a dash of business or personnel management--a wide range of topics meant to emulate the range of knowledge and social skills useful aboard the ISS.

Space Nation is funded by 3.4 million, which the founders raised through Finnish equity-crowdfunding platform Around in January 2017. It is aiming to make money through its "freemium"-model app, which includes in-app micro-payments, and through future licensing, sponsorship, and merchandising opportunities for its astronaut bootcamps.

Vh-Jaakkola says he and the company were inspired in part by the "overview" effect: The unique perspective an astronaut takes on when looking down at earth from orbit, in which they see the planet, small and alone, and without borders. "They return with a different perspective on how precious our earth is. They become cosmopolitan people, and environmentalists," he says. He hopes fostering space-oriented training around the planet will open peoples' minds. "Spread that new perspective globally is what is needed."

 

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