High School Students Are Building Their Own VR-Equipped Spaceship

Even Taylor Swift wants to get in on the ground floor of this CubeSat.

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Nov 30 2016, 12:00pm

Concept art of Project DaVinci CubeSat. Image: Erik Finman/Project DaVinci

On an October afternoon in 1899, the influential American rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard, then 17, was pruning his family's cherry tree and dreaming of spaceflight. "[A]s I looked towards the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars," Goddard later recalled. "I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended for existence at last seemed very purposive."

That same spirit remains alive and well in today's young space enthusiasts, judging by the efforts of high school students based out of North Idaho STEM Charter Academy in Rathdrum ID, who are building their own CubeSat spaceship. CubeSats, box-shaped satellites weighing only a few pounds each, offer a relatively inexpensive way to get hardware into orbit, and have become a popular platform for students, hobbyists, and other groups that have been traditionally priced out of spaceflight.

The Idaho team's mission, called Project DaVinci, is spearheaded by 18-year-old entrepreneur Erik Finman, who had made TIME's list of influential teens by age of 15. The CubeSat is on track to house a variety of features, from an internet-accessible camera to an orbital time capsule loaded with crowd-sourced movies, games, images, and other media that Project DaVinci's supporters want to see in space (BBC's Planet Earth is a popular choice, according to this recent Reddit thread about the mission).

"We wanted to do things that really gave the average person access to space," Finman told me over the phone. "We thought: 'Oh, a time capsule is a really good idea.'"

The team described the concept as an homage to Carl Sagan's Golden Record plates, identical phonographs packed with sounds and images of Earth, which are currently breaching interstellar space onboard the two Voyager probes launched in 1977. Project DaVinci will have a much shorter shelf life, operating for about two years before deorbiting and burning up in the atmosphere, but the team plans to ceremonially open the capsule remotely on Earth before the satellite retires.

With the help of NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) initiative—a program to "attract and retain" STEM-focused students—Finman and his team landed a comfy spot on a commercial Rocket Lab vehicle scheduled for liftoff from New Zealand in June 2017. In the meantime, the group has set up a Kickstarter campaign to encourage wider public involvement in the CubeSat's development.

Project DaVinci Kickstarter video. Video: Project DaVinci/Erik Finman/Kickstarter

The team also plans to include a "virtual cockpit" that will allow users to access a simulation of the onboard camera view through VR headsets, enabling them to point the viewfinder in different directions or check in on the satellite's trajectory around Earth.

"Our goal is to give a sense of interaction and feeling that [people] are in space that has only been felt with astronauts before," Finman said. "It's the coolest thing. It's a really nice camera. It's like seeing through a bay view window of Earth."

READ MORE: Watch Students Race Awesome DIY Rovers in This Annual NASA Event

Though Project DaVinci is not the first CubeSat mission built by high school students, its focus on new technologies and public engagement has caught the attention of several big names in the spaceflight industry. For instance, the group has earned the mentorship of the prolific aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, who designed SpaceShipOne and happens to be Finman's neighbor in the outskirts of Coeur d'Alene ID. Meanwhile, Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation and Singularity University, has called them "the next generation dreamers and doers."

"We were inspired by a new book How to Make a Spaceship by Julian Guthrie," Finman said. "Burt and Peter are at the heart of that story, and Burt is now our hands-on mentor. So one generation of aerospace heroes is inspiring the next, and our goal is to pass that forward to the next generation."

Even Taylor Swift caught wind of the project, and requested that her music be included in the time capsule and her name etched on the side (an orbital riff on "Blank Space," it would seem). "That was a cool email to get," Finman told me.

Concept art of the virtual cockpit feature. Image: Erik Finman/Project DaVinci

Up until this point, the adventure of spaceflight has been almost entirely limited to agencies with the budget and resources necessary to blast giant objects out of Earth's massive gravity well. But new technologies like CubeSats, coupled with the diverse and collaborative landscape of modern rocketry, is finally within the reach of 21st century Goddards, including the Project DaVinci team.

As Goddard himself put it when he was a student: "It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow."

Young space dreamers today share that boundless optimism about the future of space exploration. "I think there's so many ways forward in space that are just so exciting," Finman said.

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