Imagine you’re a NASA rocket scientist, with 30 years of experience dealing with the logistics of getting astronauts into space. Now imagine a Finnish man in a simple button shirt and blue jeans comes up to you in the middle of a convention and says he’s starting a company that will launch a global contest to become an astronaut on the International Space Station.
That idea is now captivating Finland with a crowdfunding campaign. In a week, it has surpassed €2.74 million in donations, blowing past the original €1.5 million goal by more than 75 percent. And the campaign is still going.
“I’m from Finland, not the US where I can go to work at NASA,” Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola, the founder of Cohu Experience and mind behind the Space Nation Astronaut Program, told Geektime. He didn’t have the same opportunity to enter the astronaut search funnel that an American might have some 20 years ago. As a consequence, he did everything else he could to qualify as such. Now, this physics student and space enthusiast has turned his lifelong passion into an opportunity for someone else to reach the cosmos.
The astronautical program, Space Nation, has four main sponsors, and please forgive me for what will be the use of a certain word ad nauseum: “space media company” Cohu Experience, space commercialization company Axiom Space, “New Space” and education company Edge of Space, Inc., and Finnish education company Fun Academy.
Space Nation will release an app in the fall of 2017 that will contain a number of intelligence tests, reasoning games, and other activities that will give users the chance to score points. The top 130 competitors after a certain period of time will advance to a two-week-long bootcamp where they will be introduced to an initial stage of physical tests. From there, 12 finalists will move on to a 12-week, international training course. A winner and runner-up, who will serve as an alternate, will be selected for the mission.
“When I was a kid, and this might be a little cliche, I grew up a farmer’s son in a 3,000-person village. I was a bit of an oddball in that not only was I always talking about space, but also talked about working in space,” Vähä-Jaakkola said.
He doodled rockets on everything, borrowed every book on space he could from the local library, even well into high school and college. He went on to study Applied Physics, wishing he could have access to propulsion systems at places like NASA that would have more specifically suited his interests. Over time his thoughts coalesced around one idea: accessibility.
“Back in the ’90s I began to wonder, ‘Why aren’t we on Mars? Why aren’t we back to the Moon? Why isn’t the payload price coming down?'” referring to the cost of sending material into space, which just a few years ago was as high as $22,000 per kilogram ($10,000 per pound).
A space startup ecosystem
The app itself is currently being built and will reach beta testing by September or October. Locations for the training parts of the contest are still being scouted, but will likely include at least one place in the US, another in Europe, and at least one other locale. Most of the 12-week final will be in one of those places.
This is certainly one of the first space startups with such a massive cultural vibe to it, but they aren’t appearing in a vacuum. The golden era of space startups has only just begun with lunar-bound outfits like Moon Express and SpaceIL, launch companies SpaceX and New Zealand’s Rocket Lab, nanosatellite developers Spacepharma and SkyFi, and creative projects like space-debris-clearing Astroscale.
“We are in a good spot because there are always new rocket companies and of course in the satellite business. But things that connect consumers in the world, they’re a bit missing perhaps. Now what’s happening in NASA, or the US, they want more public space and cooperation opens opportunities to open mobile phones to space.
“I’d like to see in these space companies more branding and design to connect with normal people, big public audiences. That is what causes this phenomenon, Apollo Effect or moonshot phenomenon or whatever you call it.”
The company came together in 2013, around the same time that the pillars of Finnish innovation became firmly established: the annual Slush conference, gaming company Supercell, Rovio, and of course “Angry Birds.” For the time being, Cohu has a team of 15 people, spread among its headquarters as well as Denver, Houston, Washington D.C., and Spain.
“We wouldn’t have founded this company and this venture, without this empowerment and all that entrepreneurial movement that anything is possible.”
This isn’t a charity though, in case you had gotten that idea. This is a startup, one with a clearly unique branding strategy with a classic business model applied to a nascent industry. The app will have freemium and premium offerings. Eventually, brands will be invited to sponsor parts of the competition, take part in video advertising, and negotiate over broadcasting rights to projects like Space Nation.
The era of SpaceX has drastically reduced that price to some $1,000 per pound, or $2,200/kg. More startups are entering a new space race, with a multitude of companies constructing and launching so-called “nanosatellites” with technology that approaches the functionality of older, gigantic satellites but at the fraction of the size and price. Companies like Virgin Galactic are looking to become leaders in space tourism. Access to the stars is growing.
One of those companies is Space Nation cosponsor Axiom, which was founded by CEO and President Michael T. Suffredini, who managed the International Space Station for 10 years and was instrumental in the ISS’s development. Suffredini wants Axiom to develop the first private version of the ISS, which will become extremely important when the ISS is retired in the next few years.
Axiom’s plan is to attach the basis of the new station to the old ISS, making it independent when the original station is decommissioned.
Once operating, the Axiom station (which will probably get some cool name at some point) will host 60-day-long astronaut missions, 7-to-10-day space tourist trips, on-orbit research and manufacturing (microgravity is ideal for production of bacteria for example, according to startup Spacepharma), and “exploration systems testing” with eyes on customers like Moon Express or SpaceX, which are considering plans for manned missions to the moon and Mars.
Bigelow Aerospace and Ixion (led by NanoRacks) are also developing deep space habitats with designs dependent on attachment to the ISS.
“From our point of view, you sustainably create a business where you can facilitate ‘space democratization,’ giving everybody the opportunity to bring space close to them. For the larger audience, it’s very far off and kind of a fantasy. We want to demystify it.”
The competition will be open to anyone, no matter where they live. The hope is not just to find the diamond in the rough, but also generate interest in space among myriads of participants.
“The skills we train through the app are beneficial for everyone, taking care of your nutrition, health, fitness, creative problem solving, critical thinking, learning to learn, and teamwork above all. Whether it’s a recruitment or talent search agency, it isn’t just a program for people who want to become astronauts and fly to space.”
“They get inspired and then they realize ‘Oh! This is fun!’ But also even if I try the contest but realize I don’t have the time or can’t make it [the trip], I can support another player like a friend. If you support them, your friend will get some of your points. That is a network effect that helps to create a community, but also a positive one.”
Becoming what you wanted to be when you grew up
Of course choosing an overall winner will likely be a difficult choice should the finalists be drawn from a pool of tens of thousands. Much like in the case of televised competitions like America’s Next Top Model, the runners-up could indeed follow through with a successful modeling career anyway. But it’s there where Vähä-Jaakkola emphasizes the global space community.
“We don’t always like the comparison with reality TV, because you think of scripted TV. You think of backroom rivals or stabbing people in the back. This is positive and not superficial,” he says. The space industry is known to be tight-knit, even familial, among professionals from different countries. It’s something borne out of the common need to collaborate on technology and have astronauts from different backgrounds work together on the same missions. “It’s an equal competition for all the citizens of the world. We are not seeing international boundaries or borders. In space, we are one nation, a Space Nation.”
“That’s one of the beautiful things. You have to admire the way the ISS [operates], even with Ukraine and Crimea, cooperation with the ISS has gone smoothly. The ISS, when it retires, I don’t know how it won’t get a Nobel Peace Prize.”
That brings it back around to the work element of the contest. He or she won’t be “taking a vacation,” in Vähä-Jaakkola’s words. The winner will be busy on the ISS doing real research. There is a chance that the projects, which tend to be planned well ahead of time by the astronauts and other teams, will be partially put together by the winning candidate.
The interesting thing is that there is no requirement to have a science background to compete. Considering the number of mental and physical tests involved, it is totally plausible a non-scientist will win this. That won’t preclude the winner from doing natural science on board.
“There are some things like spacewalks which demands more physical fitness, but otherwise you do scientific research, a lot of which is following procedures,” Vähä-Jaakkola assures readers. “You won’t need such a thorough background in biology to do biology experiments. In many cases when you do the experiments, you do the procedures.”
And no one should hold back thinking they won’t have 14 weeks to compete with 129 other people. Anyone invited to the semifinals and final 12-week course will be paid as employees of the company, though it’s not clear if their total earnings will match how much money astronauts make for missions like these.
“Whether they are bootcamp or 12 weeks, they get a salary. We hire them for that. Then as a winner and of course the flight also.”
It will take far more than a desire to make some moolah to win what will likely be a year-long fight just to get the job. It will take a special type of tenacity and dreamer to do it, with poise and creativity woven together. For all the talk about getting schools and science teachers more involved with directing experiments or nanosatellites from the ground in this new, democratized era of space, we asked how the program will inspire kids beyond the classroom.
“That big dream that I can actually make it to space. Not that I’m going to learn from this, but that is what ultimately happens. It needs to be a game. It needs to be fun. It needs to be entertaining.”
“We expect from here (pointing to the phone) or this training program, to create a new kind of hero.”
There is a major opportunity for some lucky country to get its first native-born astronaut from this, as implausible as it might be. That being said, one has to wonder if Cohu would also have a preference for who would win this.
“Personally, I would like to see perhaps people getting to space who haven’t had the chance before . . . aaaaand, of course, Finland is one of the countries.”