NASA is sending astronauts to a virtual space station

Before straddling a rocket and shooting off to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA astronauts need to go through extensive training on terra firma. Up to now, the main way to simulate working in zero-G environments has involved underwater “neutral buoyancy labs”, or more extravagant options such as reduced gravity aeroplane flights. With the advent of virtual reality, the space agency has begun using VR to simulate conditions onboard the ISS.

Partnering with Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, best known for its use in video-game design, NASA is developing an extensive VR training tool for its astronauts. “We immerse the user in a fabricated 3D environment, and have them complete objectives under various constraints,” explains NASA software engineer Matthew Noyes.

“The more realistic the training feels, the faster you can respond in real-world, critical situations, which could save your mission or even your life.”

As Noyes notes in the video, VR’s advantage 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. Given that NASA knows the exact dimensions of the ISS, the hope is that replicating this in VR – coupled with games physics that mimic low gravity on objects – will acquaint the astronaut with working in zero-G.

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Of course, flailing around in a meeting room is one thing – simulating weightlessness is another. Noyes says that the simulation’s integration with consumer VR headsets such as the HTC Vive “makes it very easy to incorporate training content with microgravity simulators”. He also notes the potential for pairing VR with the Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS), which involves strapping the astronaut to a harness and hoisting them into the air as they complete tasks.

The training simulation also allows multiple users to inhabit the same virtual space. That could be very useful for international astronauts who are being sent on a mission together, making it easier for them to train while being in separate countries on Earth.

NASA’s aim is to use the VR simulation as a supplementary tool for training astronauts, but the further applications of remote collaboration is an intriguing one. A number of engineers are developing ways to partner VR with robotics, including this project in Bristol, which allows users to remotely “pilot” robots. You can imagine the use of this on long space missions, where keeping human bodies fit and healthy becomes an issue.

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