I Finally Got to Live Out My Dreams of Becoming an Astronaut

Yesterday, I finally realized my dreams of being an astronaut. And there was no battery of medical testing, psych evaluations, exceptional military service or academic accomplishments, or underwater training required. Simply an Oculus Quest 2 headset and a willingness to embrace a new reality for 40 mins. 

Space Explorers: THE INFINITE provides an opportunity to use virtual reality (VR) technology to experience what so few humans ever have – visit the International Space Station. Over several missions, astronauts have used a 3D 360-degree camera to record their life and work aboard the ISS, including on a space walk and looking down at Earth from the Cupola. 

I found it a bit ironic that in Vancouver you enter the experience at the Rocky Mountaineer Train Station – home to one of the oldest modes of transport. Once inside, everything about the light, sound, and structure of the entrance primes you for the experience of leaving Earth. It has a very “Space X”/clean room feel as you are corralled through brightly-lit framed doors while anticipatory “space” music plays that I’m sure is designed to both slightly unsettle and intrigue you. You are instructed on how to use the headset – and most importantly not knock out any cables – before being scanned into the system. The floor is laid out with green dots that represent the “orbs” you touch to interact with once you have your VR headset on and activated. Each orb experience lasts around ~30s-1 min. Sadly, there are more orbs than you can touch in a 40 minute session with around 160 to select from as you wander around and “choose your own adventure.”

Once scanned in, the VR shows your party as yellow avatars (or “beings” as my friend and I called ourselves) and blue for strangers. As I first stepped out onto the “Space Station” I was hesitant – not fully trusting that I wouldn’t run into someone. But, you *do* quickly come to trust the technology as you successfully navigate around a few people. Largely because the first “Orb touch” is such a transformational experience, and you will want to do as many as you can thereafter. 

Upon touching the first orb, I was immediately floating in the Space Station with a voice-over from Jessica Meir explaining her sensations of first arriving in space. I swivelled my head and looked around in 360 degrees and truly got a sense floating I “hung” in the air and visually felt the dimensions of the module I was in. I was truly blown away. For me, it was also special to see and hear astronauts whose missions I had followed so closely, including David Saint-Jacques, Christina Koch, Jessica Meir, Anne McClain, and Sochi Noguchi. I really felt like I was “on a mission” with them even if it was for only 40 mins.

Asides from the Cupola view of Earth, which I knew would be spellbinding, there were two other particularly memorable experiences. It will come as no surprise that I loved experiencing a space walk. You truly start to feel the beginnings of the Overview Effect as the enormity of Earth fills your vision and you see the much-heralded “thin blue line” of the atmosphere. The second was being in the middle of Jessica Meir and Nick Hague as they floated a ball to each other and talked about the pandemic raging down on Earth. It was such a human moment, but then you look down and realize you are floating in the middle of the module. The ball then drifts beside you as Nick releases it and you turn your head to see Jessica catch it. I really felt as if I was in some spectacular, piggy-in-the-middle scenario. This vignette – perhaps most of all – gave me the spatial sense of floating aboard the Space Station.

The experience was over far too soon. Most people only get to 10-12 orb experiences in a session, so ultimately I was a bit sad knowing there was so much more I would have loved to experience. Asides from the immersive experiences, my friend and I also laughed hysterically as he intentionally walked around like a Mars Attack alien, which looked absolutely hilarious as an avatar in my VR headset. Whenever we would run into each other at orb we would say “Hello, fellow being” in soothing, monotone voices.

I’ve always thought that the biggest failing of VR headsets is that everyone just looks so silly wearing them. In fact – I still do – judging from the videos of people using Apple Vision Pros. But, in this experience, everyone is wearing a headset, so there is no gawking as everyone embraces this new reality for a few minutes. 

I highly, highly recommend going. You will see the Earth as never before and get to experience some small part of what it is like to be one of the rare few who have lived aboard the ISS. I can think of no better application of a VR headset than this.