A brief history of Unlimited Space Apps

As a result of our recent award from NASA (!) I was asked some good questions about what it was we actually did and why. And I thought it might be good to share them for those of you who would like to know more about the work we do as the Unlimited Space Agency. So here you go…

What led you to Space Apps and how did you meet the members of your team? 

I attended the first Space Apps Challenge event in 2012. I turned up at the Met Office, wearing an orange space suit and announced that my challenge was “to hack my way into space by 1pm tomorrow afternoon”. I think everyone thought I was a bit unhinged – certainly no-one was taking me seriously to begin with. But I did have a plan…

We’d accidentally set up the Unlimited Space Agency about a year before that first event. Most of my work is as a writer and a theatre director and since 2007 Unlimited has had a dedicated strand of work specialising in collaborating with scientists. As a result of this, in 2010 we were commissioned by the Polka Theatre to make a new play “to inspire children in science” that Chris, Clare and I very quickly decided was the opportunity to make the “sci-fi” show we’d always wanted to write.

We set the play Mission To Mars in the near future (2035) on board a space ship that was part of the first crewed mission to mars. For research, we worked with a couple of scientists who consulted on the story – in particular Professor Andy Newsam and Dr Gail Iles (aka Dr Awesome) who, at the time, was an astronaut instructor working at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne and invited us out to spend 3 days training to be astronauts with her. Which was VERY COOL. It was there we met the British astronaut Tim Peake for the first time and the idea to set up our own Space Agency really took off.


Jon, Gail, Tim, Chris & Clare in the training hall at the European Astronaut Centre

The Unlimited Space Agency (UNSA) became the centre of our future-set story – unconstrained by national politics and with an unlimited budget (a cool back story about a teenage benefactor who’d made their fortune creating video games) it was UNSA who were the first to launch humans to Mars. And through this and a couple of other (also award winning!) “satellite” projects, we were now working with an increasing number of space scientists who wanted to join us on our mission to “inspire the next generation of scientists and space explorers.”

So by the time I announced at that first Space Apps event that I was planning to hack my way into space, I’d already lined up a bunch of experts to help me. Over the course of that 2012 weekend I was joined via Skype by ESA and NASA astronauts Tim Peake and Don Thomas, astronaut instructors Gail lles and Loredana Bessone of the Eauropean Space Agency, astrophysicist Professor Andy Newsam and ESA medical research doctor Alex Kumar who called in from Antarctica! All of them had excellent advice for my training and mission to get to space. Another team at the event had a 3D printer that they used to print a “Mini Jon” that could launch to 80000ft on a weather balloon and we hacked our way into the Met Office’s green screen studio to film and broadcast a live message of me from space. It was a lot of fun J There’s a great Storify page about my first Space Apps Mission here and Nick Skytland, who organised that first event for NASA wrote a great blog including videos about how that weekend developed:

The other person I met that weekend and have been travelling with ever since is Jon Rogers – Professor of Creative Technology at the University of Dundee and also (now) UNSA’s “Head of Hack”. We’ve worked together on a couple of projects since meeting at the 2012 event and we teamed up to develop the “Launch Jon” project/story at the 2013 Space Apps and then again at the Green Man music festival.

Jon’s passion is for “making the internet physical” so when we looked at the challenges for 2014’s Space Apps Challenge, it was quickly obvious that we should work on the Space Wearables challenge. Ahead of the event, Michael Saunby (who organises Space Apps at the Met Office) introduced us to a couple of tutors from Exeter College’s School of Art and Design – Rupert Johnstone and Michelle Moinzadeh who run the fashion design course. They’d taken part in another hack event organised by the Met Office and had found it so rewarding that they wanted more of their students to take part in another. We agreed that we would work together to…

“…design an internet connected space suit that is uniquely useful in its functionality for astronauts working on the ISS, has applications on Earth and looks super cool.”

Tim Peake has been UNSA’s patron since 2012 so, being an astronaut, was the obvious choice to be our ‘model’! He agreed to Skype in to the event and consult on the design.

Kat Tanner, one of the students from Exeter College, writes:

“We were all invited by Michael Saunby through the Met office and were interested just to see what it would be like! Most of us had never done anything like this before so we were curious and a bit excited to try something new – plus being told we would get to speak to Tim Peake was an attraction.”

Jon and I arrived at the Met Office (in full UNSA uniform, of course) and pitched our challenge to everyong else that had turned up. In addition to the fashion students and tutors we picked up a couple of software developers (Steven Frazier Roberts and David Rufus) and some members of the Met Office staff (Sadie Moisan – web designer; Judith Clarke – Senior Business Analyst; Rich Carne – Head of Applications and his 7 year old son Josh) as well as.

Sadie joined us because she…

“…wanted to explore the combination of art and science.”

While Judith told me…

“As a long-time technologist I justified taking the time out to my boss by wishing “to be taken outside my comfort zone”.  I wanted to join the UNSA team as I felt it would do just that. And in fact, to me, it seemed the least likely of all the teams on the day to have a successful outcome when attempting to combine clothing with technology. I was delighted to be proved wrong.”

And that is how we ended up working together at the 2014 Space Apps Challenge.

  • How did you develop the space suit?

It was inspired by wanting to focus on ‘a personal touch’ – making clothing for an astronaut to help connect their family back home, make them look and feel good and help with their work.” Sadie Moisan

The reason I do all this stuff is because I want to increase engagement and levels of attainment with STEM subjects, particularly for children aged 7-13 and with a strong focus on promoting opportunities and positive role models for girls. Alongside that, I am a passionate believer in the power of art and play to inspire and educate. Learning should be fun. All our projects are designed to be fun. It is possible to have fun, seriously.

Jon (Rogers) and I came with the broad idea of making an internect connected space suit and we’d spoken before in particular about making a mission patch that would ‘activate’ when the ISS passed over. But really we were mostly bringing our experience of facilitating collaborative, co-design processes in which everyone gets to contribute. I’m massively pleased with how well this went in Exeter and proud of the team’s creativity and hard work.

Kat Tanner from Exeter College again writes:

“We brainstormed around the initial theme of Space Wearables, then discussed the ideas as a group and put a few of them together. We thought about what we could realistically achieve over the short time we had, and after speaking to Tim Peake, we refined our ideas again according to what he said. Then we kept building on and improving each others ideas as we worked on the prototype to find new solutions for any challenges which came up along the way, for example stitching in conductive thread so we could take power and data to the badge from a different area of the suit so that it would be less bulky and not ruin the styling.”

  • What do you hope for the future of the space suit?

“Hopefully we can make a version that Tim could wear in Space – it would be amazing to have something we have been involved with being used outside of Earth!” Kat Tanner, fashion student

I really agree with Kat. There’s a lot of permissions to get and I doubt (sadly) that we’d be allowed to send clothing that was actually internet connected to the ISS. But I’d love to make a version of the suit that didn’t have the tech in it that was comfortable, stylish and bespoke for Tim to make his mission in space even more enjoyable. I’m definitely planning on making a developed version of the connected mission patch that people on Earth could wear to celebrate Tim’s mission and know when he (and the space station) are above them.

  • What steps are you taking towards that future?

We’re building the development of the suit into our core programme of work for 2015-16 and are applying to trusts and foundations for financial support to do that. We have a broader programme of work designed to increase knowledge and understanding of Tim’s mission that this fits into and we’re excited about taking the suit to the next stage of development as part of that.

We’re talking to Exeter College about building the development of the suit into Exeter College’s teaching modules and the V&A museum in London about the possibility of displaying it there. We remain in contact with Tim by email and are developing relationships with the education departments at both ESA and the UK Space Agency. I’d love to partner with one (or some!) of the national space agencies to develop this.

We’ve also started some early conversations with some tech companies about developing the mission patch into a product that people could build, customise and wear. My mum would like us to make the wearable hug a reality as well!

And of course we’re hoping to take up NASA’s invitation to attend at the launch of the Space X resupply rocket in September. If we can get some support to cover the costs of flying from the UK to Florida then I’ll be there in my space suit, flying the UNSA flag…





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