How to Become an Astronaut

How to Become an Astronaut

When astronauts floating in space look down on planet Earth, they have reported experiencing a feeling that has often been described as the Overview Effect. This sensation can best be defined as a sense of awe, a claustrophobic feeling that comes with the awareness that if we screw up that blue marble down there in the vastness of space, that’s it. It’s all over.

Since 1961, a little over 550 people have seen that blue marble called planet Earth from space. Only 24 have seen our planet from an even greater distance, ever smaller in its vastness. How can we younger generations experience what a select few have experienced so far? Would it be possible to create ambassadors for planet Earth in children by letting them experience the Overview effect?

Source: SpaceBuzz, used with permission

SpaceBuzz rocket ship

Source: SpaceBuzz, used with permission

This is a question that the non-profit organization SpaceBuzz has taken up.

They wondered how to launch a million children around the world into space and let them experience the Overview effect. The answer they found was to build a custom rocket ship and launch classrooms of kids into space… in virtual reality.

This exciting educational program consists of a pre-flight, a flight and a post-flight program. In the pre-flight program at the school, children learn how to write an application letter to become an astronaut. They also learn how to experience gravity by hanging upside down from a horizontal bar, they put together an oven mitt puzzle to experience what astronauts experience when manipulating objects, and they solve a variety of simple maths, geography and language problems.

Once these kids pass the pre-flight astronaut training – and don’t tell the secret, they all pass the training – a rocket ship arrives in front of their school. The rocket ship is mounted horizontally on a truck. There is no doubt that this is a rocket ship. Its shape and size make it clear. The fuel engines are clearly visible, the signature of astronaut André Kuipers of the European Space Agency indicates his space status, and the SpaceBuzz team welcomes the new astronauts.

Source: SpaceBuzz, used with permission

Inside the SpaceBuzz rocket ship

Source: SpaceBuzz, used with permission

Groups of children enter the rocket ship and sit in the specially designed astronaut seats. They put on their space virtual reality headset, put on their headphones and get ready for launch. Two-time International Space Station astronaut Kuipers will lead them on their journey as the captain of the spaceship.

The countdown begins, the engines turn on, and the young astronauts feel their seats move for launch. After the excitement of the launch, they enter an orbit around the Earth. The noise and fumes of the launch became the silence and clarity of space.

To make watching more comfortable, the chairs move again, and the young astronauts see planet Earth, their home. Kuipers tells them about the wonders of the Earth, the oceans, the northern lights and the Amazon rainforest as they circle the planet. Once their journey comes to an end, the doors close again, and they prepare themselves to land and arrive safely back home.

The SpaceBuzz program is not only an exciting experience for any child (and teacher and parent), but it also offers endless opportunities for research in the cognitive sciences. Do children really experience the Overview effect, and how will we measure it? And given the educational nature of the SpaceBuzz program, does the virtual reality simulation produce learning gains?

My research team began the scientific journey to answer these questions.

For example, in one experiment we tested several hundred children on a range of measures, including whether they experienced awe, the Overview effect, and learning gains. To begin with, we used questionnaires, even though we are currently engaged in neurophysiological studies, to determine whether we can replicate the findings online.

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The findings showed great promise. First, we found evidence for learning gains in children by comparing results from a pre-launch and post-landing test. But a so-called “structural equation model” that represented how awe, the Overview effect, and learning gains were thought to be causally structurally related demonstrated more. As a result of experiencing an awe effect, children experienced the Overview effect, and because they experienced the Overview effect, they experienced learning gains. And rest assured, not the other way around. Apparently, if learners are in awe of the content, they learn.

Now, if the SpaceBuzz program shows learning gains, it holds great promise not only for young space travelers in virtual reality, but also for the future of education. Think about it. The virtual reality simulation can become customizable for the learner, problem solving can take place in virtual reality simulations, and pressure in the current classroom can be relieved through these complementary technologies.

But for now, SpaceBuzz is traveling the world. After visiting the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Hungary, we have already reached around 50,000 children and counting. Count the new ambassadors for planet Earth!

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