Virtual Reality Comes to Spaceflight: Rocket Tours and Walks on Mars
Last week, Colorado Springs played host to the 32nd Space Symposium. It might however as well have been held at Cape Canaveral as United Launch Alliance (ULA) had created a virtual-reality app which placed us on a launchpad next to a Delta IV rocket. Watching it take off was indeed nearly as thrilling as seeing a launch in person.
It goes without saying that humans should not get too close to a rocket launch. Cameras placed at three different positions on and around the launchpad captured the explosive fire that erupted from the bottom of the rocket whilst sound boomed from the headphones. Seeing the details of the rocket’s body along with the accompanying vivid pillar of flame up close and in such detail can only be described as astounding. In no time at all, smoke had overwhelmed two of the cameras, but a third gave us a spectacular view of the rocket as it progressively diminished in size overhead.
The VR app in question is made for the Oculus Rift VR headset, providing a 3D, 360-degree camera view of the launch. In other words, the user is able to “look around” whilst the video plays. Even though we knew at the back of our mind that it was a video playing back, the responsiveness of the system was enough to make us temporarily forget and disregard this fact.
The VR app is provided for download on the company’s website and can also be used on Google Cardboard (which is a DIY cardboard VR headset requiring a smartphone) by users who don’t want to buy a VR headset. Even though the spectacle is not as impressive on Google Cardboard, it’s a lot less expensive.
At the event, Lockheed Martin also gave a brief VR tour of the facility where their Orion capsule is loaded onto “Super Gruppy”, a specially designed plane. They also exhibited a VR game where players moved a rover along the surface of Mars, with the objective of reaching target locations whilst ensuring the rover does not tip over. Another game showcased by Lockheed Martin lets the user walk around a section of the Red Planet’s surface. The company is involved in the research and development of some futuristic VR tech with the objective of using VR as a part of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and outreach. The programs we saw at the Space Symposium are however unavailable to the public at the moment.
NASA also had a VR tour of the Space Launch System (SLS), the agency’s new megarocket that will be used to carry the Orion spacecraft. This VR tour is also not yet available to the public as a NASA representative said there was a limit on the amount of information that can be released about the SLS at this stage in its development, he however, added that the VR tour would likely be available to the public in a few years’ time.
If you are desirous of taking a virtual tour of Mars, you should visit Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex this summer as they are opening a new exhibit called “Destination: Mars,” where visitors wear VR headsets giving them a 3D, 360-degree view of Mars’ surface that were created using real images taken by rovers on the Red Planet. An attractive bonus is that the tour is guided by a VR projection of Buzz Aldrin! The exhibit will also set aside a space where visitors wearing VR headsets can walk around as if they are really walking around on Mars’ surface.