This smartphone app wants to train you for space… and then send you there

Space Nation says it wants to democratise space travel. It’s a grand statement to make for a small Finnish startup, based in a trendy area of Helsinki with more coffee shops than rocket ships.

More than a few eyebrows were raised when the company announced, earlier this year, that it plans to launch a smartphone app designed to train users to become actual astronauts. Through a series of physical, mental and social tasks, the idea is that people will pick up the basic skills needed to become a space traveller. Think of it as a space-focused blend of Strava and Duolingo, with global leaderboards eventually whittling down 100 top-ranking competitors for the programme’s next stage.

Those 100 individuals will take part in bootcamps with real NASA astronaut trainers, who will select 12 people from the bunch to compete in a filmed series. The overall winner of that series will secure a trip into space. And not just a brief foray beyond the Earth’s atmosphere – Space Nation’s CEO and co-founder Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola tells me the winner will be doing real experiments and research.

Then, a year later, the whole process will begin again. Space Nation isn’t a one-shot rocket trip, you see, but a long-term project to – in the company’s words – “equip current and future generations with the skills and knowledge they will need in the upcoming space era”.

All that certainly sounds ambitious, bordering on fantastical, but this week Space Nation added a crucial portion of credibility to its astronomical aspirations. The venture, already crowdfunded for more than €3 million, has bought a module’s worth of “office space” on the International Space Station (ISS), which it plans to rent out to research institutes looking to conduct experiments. Space Nation also announced that it will be the first space-tourism agency to be made an affiliate member of the United Nations’ World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

With UN backing, and working connections to both NASA and the ISS, could Space Nation actually deliver on its goal of bringing the everyman into space when it launches the Space Nation Astronaut Program at the start of 2018?

“If you can assemble IKEA furniture then you could probably be a good astronaut”

Sitting in a shared office space in Helsinki, orbiting space stations and grueling NASA training seem far away, but Vähä-Jaakkola tells me that it’s precisely this perception of astronauts – as herculean superhumans – that has led to a widespread misconception, largely stemming from Cold War-era propaganda, about what the job entails.

“If you think about astronauts, okay, they’re super-fit and super-smart,” he starts. “But listen to what astronauts say. [Spanish-American astronaut] Michael López-Alegría says that if you can assemble IKEA furniture then you could probably be a good astronaut. The same goes for if you can cook food from a recipe.

(Above: Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola)

“There are a lot of aspects [to being an astronaut],” he continues. “Creative problem solving and logical thinking, decision making, negotiating skills. A lot of these skills are beneficial for all of us. Not just getting along with different cultures and people, but also working together. Especially in space, your life relies on them. Mistrust can be fatal.”

“No borders”

Working across cultures is an aspect Vähä-Jaakkola reinforces several times during our conversation. Initially trained as a physicist, the company CEO had drifted away from his long-term interest in space until he was approached by Mazdak Nassir, a former actor and film director who arrived in Finland as an asylum seeker from Iran in 1990. Nassir – now Space Nation’s chief creative officer – told me about growing up to the sounds of bombs and sirens of the Gulf War, gazing at the stars and imagining an alternative.

“In the blackouts, we saw the aircraft coming”

“In the blackouts, we saw the aircraft coming,” he said. “But I looked beyond the bombers and just saw the starry sky. I remember staring at the sky and imagining myself going there.

“Back then I decided to always be positive and to be a new kind of pioneer – to find unity and achieve impossible things. Now, years later, we are doing exactly that. We are the pioneers, a nation who seeks to learn and enhance. A nation without borders.”

(Above: Mazdak Nassir)

It’s the kind of utopian thinking that fuelled 1960s representations of space, notably the political metaphors of Star Trek, championing global co-operation at a time of both the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, Space Nation has chosen the tagline “No Borders” for its project, which, although it can be interpreted in terms of breaking past personal limitation, packs a decidedly political message. Vähä-Jaakkola tells me that, at a time when many nations are turning inwards, an outward-looking project comparable to the 20th-century space race is more than a sci-fi pipe dream; it’s a political necessity.  

“Looking at the global elections, and what has been happening to nations and the definition of nations, this is the time we need the empowerment the [Apollo mission] gave,” he says.

Times have changed, however, and national funding for space programmes has dwindled. At the same time, private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon founder Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin have broken through as leading figures in space technology. In March this year, for example, SpaceX was able to successful re-launch one of its Falcon 9 rockets, marking the first time an organisation has been able to reuse an orbital-class booster after recovering it from a previous launch. These companies still very much rely on government partnerships, however, something Vähä-Jaakkola predicts will soon change.

“A commercial space where the money doesn’t come from the government,” he effuses. “That’s a big game changer. Because, basically, we’re in a transition time where even SpaceX needs to have governmental contracts to be in the business. We’re getting there. And if we get there, it frees up NASA to focus on deep space exploration.”

“We need to change the mindset of the whole population, about what it means to go to space and why it is beneficial for us.”

The dynamics of a pan-global private space drive will clearly be different from those of competing national space programmes, but Vähä-Jaakkola is keen to press the fact that whole industries in materials and software were built out of the 1960s race to the moon. The societal advantages of applying business competition to space travel could be enormous, he argues, and this is something Space Nation wants smartphone users across the world to be aware of.

“Private companies are working on rocket technology and satellites, which is inspiring, but normal people don’t have a base to be part of this,” he says. “We need to change the mindset of the whole population, on the ground, about what it means to go to space and why it is beneficial for us.”

Making space everyday

So, how does a small Finnish startup go about changing our approach to space travel? Vähä-Jaakkola holds up his smartphone and tells me that the capabilities of this machine make it possible to teach the basics of being an astronaut, in a way that would have been impossible a decade ago. Finland may not have a strong association with space travel, but it has with education, and Space Nation wants to educate users about space in a way that makes it relatable; “an everyday experience, in a way”.

If Space Nation manages to pull off its grand plan, then it could indeed signal a new way to think about space travel. The image of astronauts as elite, multiple-PhD-wielding superhumans could make room for something a lot more quotidian. That said, the worlds of gamified smartphone apps and actual rockets are just about as far away from each other as you can get in the public consciousness. A free app doesn’t have anywhere near the same gravity of a national space programme, and it’s likely that plenty of users will take Space Nation to be, at worst, a scam.

If it wants to change mindsets around space travel, Space Nation will first need to convince users that it’s actually capable of sending people beyond earth’s atmosphere, and that will hinge on partnerships with those multiple-PhD-wielding superhumans – at least in the short term. Partnerships with NASA and the ISS are a good start, but Space Nation will need to continue building those connections and show it can manage something extraordinary, before it can have a shot at making it ordinary.

“What are the implications for society, for our place in the universe?”

“If we imagine that space is only about engineering, then it’s far away for most of us,” says Vähä-Jaakkola. “So we need to talk about it as if it’s something that’s happening. Civilisation is spreading there. We are at the threshold of that now. So what are the implications for society, for our place in the universe? What does it mean for everyday people?”