Q&A with NASA engineers behind Raspberry Pi–powered ISS Mimic

Did you see the coolest International Space Station (ISS) on Earth on the blog last week? ISS Mimic is powered by Raspberry Pi, mirrors exactly what the real ISS is doing in orbit, and was built by NASA engineers to make the ISS feel more real for Earth-bound STEAM enthusiasts.

Here’s (most of) the team behind ISS Mimic

The team launched ISS Mimic in celebration of 20 years of continuous human presence in space on the ISS. And they’ve been getting lots of questions since we posted about their creation so, we asked them back to fill you in with a quick Q&A.

And here are newbies Dallas and Estefannie (Estefannie made the ISS Mimic video)

1. Since this is NASA-related, “MIMIC” must be an acronym, right?

Yes, we forced one: “Mechatronic Instantiated Model, Interactively Controlled”

2. What’s your subtitle? 

“The second-most complicated International Space Station ever made”. We also like “1/100th scale for 1/100,000,000th cost”

3. Wait, are US tax dollars paying for you to make this?

No, it’s a volunteer project, but we do get lots of support. It’s done on our own time and money — though many NASA types and others have kicked in to help buy materials. 

ISS Mimic, filmed by YouTube’s finest Estefannie Explains it All

4. So you have supporters?

Yes — mostly other organisations that we have teamed up with. We partner with a non-profit makerspace near NASA, Creatorspace, for tools, materials, and outreach. And an awesome local 3D printer manufacturer, re:3D, has joined us and printed our (large) solar panels for free, and is helping to refine our models. They are also working towards making a kit of parts for sale for those who don’t have a printer or the time to print all the pieces, with a discount for educators.

Particularly helpful has been Space Center Houston (NASA’s visitor center), who invited us to present to the public and at an educator conference (pre-COVID), and allowed us to spend a full day filming in their beautiful facility. Our earliest supporter was Boeing, who we‘ve worked with to facilitate outreach to educators and students from the start.

The real International Space Station (ISS) in orbit

5. How long have you been working on this?

5 years — a looong time. We spent much effort early on to establish the scale and feasibility and test the capabilities of 3D printing. We maintained a hard push to keep the materials cost down and reduce build time/complexity for busy educators. We always knew we’d use Raspberry Pi for the brain, but were looking for less costly options for the mechatronics. We’d still like to cut the cost down a lot to make the project more attainable for lower-income schools and individuals.

6. Have you done any outreach so far?

All of the support has allowed us to take our prototype to schools and STEM events locally. But we really want this to be built around the world to reach those who don’t have much connection to space exploration and hands-on STEM. The big build is probably most suitable for teens and adults, while the alternative builds (in-work) would be much more approachable for younger students.

‘ISS Mimic’ on display

7. So, this just for schools? 

No, not at all. Our focus is to make it viable for schools/educators — in cost and build complexity — but we want any space nerd to be able to build their own and help drive the design.

8. Biggest challenge?

Gravity. And time to work on the project… and trying to keep the cost down.

9. What about a Lunar Gateway or Habitat version of ISS Mimic?

It’s on our radar! Another build that’s screaming to be made is hacking the LEGO ISS model (released this year) to rotate its joints and light LEDs.

10. How do we launch ideas at you or get into the design orbit? 

You can always drop your thoughts right here [in the comments section below] or join the design effort on Discord and GitHub. And there’s always the socials: FacebookInstagramTwitter

Raspberry Pi on the real ISS

There are two Raspberry Pi computers aboard the real ISS right now! And even better, young people have the chance to write Python code that will run on them — IN SPACE — as part of the European Astro Pi Challenge.

Tell the young space enthusiast in your life about Astro Pi to inspire them to try coding! All the info lives at astro-pi.org.


Ashley Whittaker avatar

Am *def* coming to visit when the seas and airwaves are open for fun travel again. It’s just not the same on Skype, not the same.

NASA Engineers avatar

For sure!! In addition to Mimic, we’ll have to show you an actual Apollo capsule, moon rocks, Saturn V rocket, Shuttle Carrier & Orbiter mockup, SpaceX rocket, and lots more NASA stuffs. :)

Ashley Whittaker avatar

Eurghmagad eurhmagad eurghmagad. Not sure about those Space X folks’ new outfits though. Not sure they care. This is why I’m not an astronaut.

Estefannie avatar

I want to go when Ashley comes!

Ashley Whittaker avatar

See you in… 2022 ?‍♀️

Gregg Levine avatar

Is this at the Cape? Or back in Houston? One of the two surviving Saturn Vs lives at the Cape. The other is at the development facility in Alabama. Last time I was at the Cape I did see an Apollo. She was wearing the crew service arm. And of course the Shuttle.
And several years ago, we had plans to visit the Houston offices. But missed it because of the weather then. Now? I definitely want to do so because of that amazing model of yours. I’ve been a fan/supporter of the space agency for many years. In fact, I recall visiting the Cape when it was just the Merritt Island Launch Area, and the region where the VAB is based was being developed. And again as that area came to closer to being finished. Then that time. And SpaceX is the an amazing circumstances, and a great one at that.

Puffergas avatar

Where are we going ?
Good to see that I am not the only one that likes the Official Touch Screen. Cheers !

NASA Engineers avatar

Oh yea, that touchscreen has been great. We’ve never had any trouble from it. We were talking about visiting Space Center Houston, the visitor center next to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. That’s where we (Estefannie!) filmed the latest video.

Puffergas avatar

I would like that trip! Wondering what to do with a touchscreen, I wrote my first program called PiStack [1]. It is a remote radio stack for the opensource flight simulator FlightGear [2]. The next project (aPionics) is an external instrument panel using servos and stepper motors. I have an artificial horizon, kind of working now. You might like FlightGear, because it has a nice space shuttle simulator. Being more of an aviator, I don’t know much about the space shuttle, other than it is rather complex. My field of work, before an illness, was/is the aerospace industry performing static and dynamic tests and as a Responsible Level III NDT inspector. I wish there were more STEM projects in aviation and space. Maybe local flight schools would be interested.

Really like the working ISS model.

Best regards,

[1] https://github.com/puffergas/PiStack
[2] https://www.flightgear.org/

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