As a pilot and presently a doctoral student, I have long been fascinated by space. Currently, I am researching issues on the impact of isolation on long-duration space flights and new tools to address isolation’s effects. There are many challenges astronauts face when trying to solve the ultimate question: Are we alone in the universe? Yet in the process of exploring that answer, the astronauts themselves experience extreme isolation.
While being in space is an amazing adventure, the missions are long, lasting now hundreds of days of living and working in confined enclosures. Humankind is a social creature and submitting ourselves to the isolated, confined, and extreme environment of space over long periods is challenging. In my studies, I thought, how could I build more social interaction for these individuals in such a limited environment? That’s when the idea of GravityGames came to mind: a game that is made and played in space by the by astronauts that uses the breakthrough technology of zero-gravity 3D printing.
As I looked at the challenge of isolation from many perspectives, it occurred to me how it dovetailed with another critical concern shared by many of us the fields of space and science: how to inspire and engage young minds with real problems and innovative hands-on activities. I reached out to students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields at Campolindo High School in the in San Francisco Bay area. These students had joined robotics, design, and computer groups but had no prior experience with any space related projects. Space is alluring and they were immediately intrigued and excited to join my new idea as the pilot team to find out how to make a hand-held game that will be made in space and can be played in space. They immediately began to think about how the condition of zero gravity might affect any game played in space and how to make the process of playing the game fun for astronauts living inside limited areas.
Through a partnership with Made In Space, Inc., the creators of the zero gravity (0G) 3D printer presently on the International Space Station (ISS), our team set out on our own mission to invent a game that could be printed and played on the ISS. After months of trial and error, we created StarCatcher. The game is scaffolded with inner chambers and a ‘star’ (ball) inside that can float around; the premise of the game is to get the star in its catcher (inner chamber) in a limited timeframe, but in space, it’s not that simple. To understand if playing StarCatcher without gravity would work in space we made an iteration of the print, made on a 3D printer on Earth, and simulated its play in a swimming pool, since water density roughly approximates limited gravity. Several iterations of the game were made until we thought the game was playable. Rules for play were developed to make it fun and yet interesting so that astronauts would want to continue. The game could include up to the full contingent of six crew members on the ISS. Then by January of this year, we created something that we felt would be able to be played in space and fun for the astronauts as well.
In February, 2017, the ISS crew printed and demonstrated StarCatcher aboard the International Space Station. The students watched the print process, with time-lapsed footage, and could see the light and dark shadows as the station repeatedly orbited the Earth every 90 minutes with sunrises and sets during each period. This was a moment for us all and we were very aware of the magnitude: We had created something for space, built on the largest laboratory the world has ever made, the International Space Station. It was the closest thing to being in space ourselves, a place where only about 550 people have ever been. Based on its demonstration, the game appears to have been fun as well. The students and I are now awaiting a debrief from the crew with their remarks about the experience. It is our hope that there will be more games that will be made and played in space, designed by STEM students who want to be engaged with innovations that have an effect on real space problems and in doing so, reach for the stars.