From NASA to Moving Labs: Sasha Samochina talks James Webb, 3D worlds and human connection
From a dying star’s final ‘performance’ to the sharpest infrared image of the universe yet, the release of the first spectacular James Webb telescope pictures has galvanised public interest in space across the world.
The Webb, which is regarded as the Hubble telescope’s successor, is anticipated to be a major force in scientific discovery for at least the next two decades.
Here at Moving Brands, we’re lucky to have former NASA Jet Propulsion Technologist Sasha Samochina on the team to share her unique insider perspective on the story of the vast space telescope launched from Kourou, French Guiana, on an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25, 2021.
“It may look like a lot of the things that we’ve already seen, but if you look at the number of galaxies and the clarity with which it takes photos, it is an incredible feat,” says Sasha, who we recruited from the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in September 2021.
She is particularly interested in the story of the relationship between the Hubble (launched in 1990) and the Webb.
“Just thinking about how much time has passed between those two missions and how technology has moved on,” says Sasha. “I mean, the sheer size of Webb is larger. The lenses that they’re able to use are obviously way more powerful than anything that’s ever been put on a space telescope before.
“It’s also a beautiful story of the handover, where Hubble will not be working forever, and so this is a sort of backup. I know the Webb was harder to sell as a mission because it was so similar, but the technology was far more advanced. And since Hubble is still going, NASA really do try to squeeze every last moment out of everything possible.”
Enabling a 3D world
Much of Sasha’s work at NASA involved taking colleagues into a 3D world where they could fully explore and understand the scale and size of a particular concept and Sasha recalls using the HoloLens augmented reality platform to do just that with the Webb.
She says: “The whole project that I was pushing at JPL was, ‘how can you use this tool to get someone out of the 2D screen into the 3D world?’ ‘Does this thing fit into this thing? Wow, this is too small. Wow, this is too big.’ Those questions are hard to answer without actual scale in the 3D world.
“It was exciting to be able to take something like the James Webb, throw it into augmented reality and show people who had been working on it what it would look like before it was even built. That brought about a real connection.
“And also seeing people’s work come to life — it’s inspiring to actually feel physically in the same place as this concept that is highly technical. I think it almost humanises the robot or person a little bit, so that was always a beautiful thing to experience.”
Bringing the spirit of NASA to Moving Brands
Sasha has brought elements of NASA culture to her new role leading Moving Labs, our experimental design and rapid innovation team, who build immersive experiences focused on sustainability, accessibility, education and future thinking.
Among these is the attitude that everyone on the team is included in successes and their contribution acknowledged.
“At JPL, we won an Emmy award for our work on the Cassini mission grand finale and that Emmy went to anyone who had touched any of the communications,” recalls Sasha. “To give each person a nod to say, ‘it wouldn’t have been possible without you’ — that is woven through the culture there.”
Another aspect Sasha has brought to MB is the problem-solving attitude and recognition that when pushing the boundaries of what is possible, there will always be mistakes made — but the focus is working together to fix them.
She says: “I’m constantly telling people, if you can think of a better, more efficient way or a way that’s outside of the realm of the usual processes or tools that we use, then I welcome that completely.”
Equally important to her is the concept of accessibility and technology transfer, maximising every advancement in as many ways as possible.
“I think it’s about recycling,” says Sasha. “I think about tools that make tools that make tools — so every project is not this bespoke one thing for one person, it is something that you can take pieces of and create other things from.
“Something I focused on at JPL was, ‘OK, we’ve made this complicated piece of software from scratch that does certain tasks for scientists, engineers and astronauts, but now let’s turn it into an educational tool for children’. It was almost like we had made such a complex thing that we had to continue to break it down into smaller things for it to be more usable on a wider scale.
“That technology transfer is so important to me because I want to see a world where we don’t make something and then, a year and a half later, it’s like ‘oh, that thing is not working quite as well because the web got updated’.
Building a connected world
For Sasha, hand in hand with this drive for greater sustainability and accessibility in technology comes the issue of connectivity, the desire to bring people together wherever in the world they may be.
“That’s the focus with the projects that I’m trying to bring into Moving Labs,” she says, pointing to a current project with former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott that exemplifies this approach.
It features an interactive 3D model of a beautiful patchwork space suit stitched together using pieces of art by children from across the world. Each piece of art corresponds to a child in a different country, and the user interface will make it possible for each piece to be viewed individually alongside the artist’s name and home country.
“The goal of this project is to unite the children that took part, to have them see their work and be able to interact with it in a 3D way, and also in a way that can be viewed and worked with across the globe by other children and adults,” says Sasha.
“It’s incredible: it has all of these different elements of 3D photogrammetry and we’re doing usability testing with children from all around the world. So it touches each of these subjects, as well as the idea that we’re all on this Earth together.”