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How to become an astronaut

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When astronauts floating in space look at planet Earth, they report feeling a feeling that has often been described as the Overview effect. This feeling can be defined as a feeling of dread, a feeling of claustrophobia accompanied by the realization that if we screw up that blue marble out there in the vastness of space, that’s it. All is finished.

Since 1961, just over 550 people have seen this blue marble called planet Earth from space. Only 24 have seen our planet from an even greater distance, ever smaller in the vastness. How can our younger generations experience what, until now, a privileged few have experienced? Would it be possible to create ambassadors of planet Earth in children by having them experience the hover effect?

Source: SpaceBuzz, used with permission

SpaceBuzz Rocket

Source: SpaceBuzz, used with permission

This is a question asked by the non-profit organization SpaceBuzz.

They wondered how to launch a million children around the world into space and made them experience the hover effect. The answer they found was to build a custom rocket and launch classes of children into space… in virtual reality.

This exciting educational program includes a pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight program. In the pre-flight program at school, children learn how to write an application letter to become an astronaut. They also learn to experience gravity by hanging upside down from a horizontal bar, they put together a puzzle with oven mitts to find out what astronauts experience when they manipulate objects, and they solve a variety of simple mathematical, geographical and linguistic problems.

After these kids pass pre-flight astronaut training — and don’t tell the secret, but everyone has passed the training — a rocket ship arrives in front of their school. The rocket is mounted horizontally on a truck. There is no doubt that it is a rocket. Its shape and size make it obvious. Fuel engines are clearly visible, the signature of European Space Agency astronaut André Kuipers marks his space status, and the SpaceBuzz crew welcomes new astronauts.

Source: SpaceBuzz, used with permission

Inside the SpaceBuzz rocket

Source: SpaceBuzz, used with permission

Groups of children enter the rocket and sit in the seats specially designed for astronauts. They put on their space virtual reality headset, put on their headphones and prepare for launch. Kuipers, a double astronaut on the International Space Station, will guide them on their journey as captain of the spacecraft.

The countdown begins, the engines fire up and the young astronauts feel their seats move for launch. After the excitement of the launch, they enter orbit around the Earth. The noise and fumes of the launch have become the silence and clarity of space.

To make observation 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 circumnavigate the planet. When their journey is complete, the gates close and they prepare to land and return home safely.

The SpaceBuzz program is not only an exhilarating experience for any child (and teacher, and parent), but it also offers endless possibilities for cognitive science research. Are children actually feeling the overview effect, and how would we measure it? And given the educational nature of the SpaceBuzz program, does virtual reality simulation provide learning gains?

My research team has begun the scientific journey to answer these questions.

For example, in one experiment, we tested 100 children on a range of measures, including whether they experienced fear, the overview effect, and learning gains. To begin with, we used questionnaires, although we are currently conducting neurophysiological studies, to determine if we can replicate the results online.


The results turned out to be very promising. First, we found evidence of learning gains in children by comparing the results of a test before launch and after landing. But a so-called “structural equation model” that represented how dread, overview effect, and learning gains were assumed to be structurally related to each other demonstrated more. Because of experiencing the awesome 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 impressed with 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. Virtual reality simulation could become adaptive to the learner, problem solving could take place in virtual reality simulations, and the pressures in the current classroom can be relieved by 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 some 50,000 children and are still counting. Let’s count the new ambassadors of planet Earth!