Before riding a rocket and blasting off to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA astronauts must undergo extensive training on dry land. Until now, the primary way to simulate working in zero-G environments has involved underwater “ neutral buoyancy laboratories”, or more extravagant options such as reduced gravity airplane flights. With the advent of virtual reality, the space agency began using virtual reality to simulate conditions aboard the ISS.
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In partnership with Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, best known for its use in video game design, NASA is developing a comprehensive VR training tool for its astronauts. “We immerse the user in a fabricated 3D environment and have them achieve goals under various constraints,” explains NASA software engineer Matthew Noyes.
“The more realistic the training, the faster you can react in critical real-world situations, which could save your mission or even your life. »
As Noyes notes in the video, the advantage of virtual reality here is its ability to create a sense of presence, allowing the astronaut to become physically familiar with an environment without having to leave Earth. Since NASA knows the exact dimensions of the ISS, the hope is that replicating this in VR – coupled with game physics that mimic low gravity on objects – will familiarize the astronaut with working in zero -G.
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Of course, bustling about in a meeting room is one thing, simulating weightlessness is another. Noyes says the simulation’s integration with consumer VR headsets such as the HTC Vive “makes it very easy to integrate training content with microgravity simulators.” He also notes the possibility of combining virtual reality with the ARGOS system (Active Response Gravity Offload System), which consists of attaching the astronaut to a harness and hoisting him in the air while he performs tasks.
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The training simulation also allows multiple users to inhabit the same virtual space. This could be very useful for international astronauts who are sent on missions together, making it easier for them to train while being in separate countries on Earth.
NASA’s goal is to use VR simulation as an additional tool for astronaut training, but the other applications of remote collaboration are intriguing. A number of engineers are developing ways to combine virtual reality with robotics, including this project in Bristol, which allows users to “steer” robots remotely. You can imagine using this on long space missions, where keeping human bodies fit and healthy becomes an issue.
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