How Virtual Reality Is Helping Astronauts
NASA’s Johnson Space Center is located in Houston, Texas and believe it or not, has had a lab dedicated to virtual reality since 1990. It was created 26 years ago and at that time, the possibility of utilizing virtual reality to teach astronauts on how to properly navigate spacewalks was a long way away. Today, that potential is very clear and realistic.
In order to train astronauts to go to outer space, they have to learn many different operations and be prepared for a slew of potential situations that could arise. Keep in mind those potential situations are very different than anything people would experience on earth. One situation is spacewalks, or in other words, walking to the spacecraft with nothing but a suit on and a rope that keeps you connected to the ship. Another potential situation is the need for SAFER, which is a jet pack utilized for activity when someone is untethered and needing to complete multiple tasks without heat, friction or gravity.
NASA helps astronauts simulate this by either having them dive into a pool that’s underwater, called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory or by them taking a ride on the most up to date VR system that was created at the JSC’s VR laboratory.
While an astronaut is in training, they put on a VR headset and are then able to see an artificial 3D environment that was created to show what an astronaut would see if they were on a real spacewalk for example. Dynamic Onboard Ubiquitous Graphics, otherwise known as DOUG, is the software that powers this. It enables astronauts to take their first steps into space (or at least feel like it) without really taking their first step in space.
Even though DOUG is just a big piece of coding without any sort of personality, DOUG is a user’s closest friend while using this VR system.
Clayton Anderson and Rick Mastracchio are both NASA astronauts. They utilize virtual reality systems in their Space Vehicle Mock Up Facility that’s located at Johnson Space Center in order to train for tasks they will need for their next mission that’s going to the International Space Station.
The system utilizes several sensors for tracking the users chest, hand and head movements. There’s even a set of gloves that can help replicate many things the users hands do including when you grab, point or open/close your hand among other movements as well.
One of the most exciting aspects of the VR Lab is to assist astronauts in learning how to deal with objects that are in space. Since there’s no gravity, the way we deal with the weight and size of anything is much different. Thankfully there’s the Charlotte robot, that’s a device of 8 motors that control individual wires in a contraption that automatically changes to mimic the motion and behavior of specific objects just like they would be in space. By utilizing the VR headset with Charlotte, astronauts are able to learn how to move the rotation of an object to change its spin with no gravity.
The main objective of the VR Lab is to familiarize astronauts with SAFER. Even though it’s never happened before, astronauts need to be ready for the situation of an astronaut becoming untethered in space, just in case it does happen one day.
In the VR Lab, there’s a mode that mimics the SAFER unit as the user puts on the headset and handles the joysticks as they go into virtual outer space.
Since virtual reality technology has and continues to improve over time, it’s thought that the VR Lab’s work is most likely going to grow and NASA may even utilize mainstream headsets in the future, instead of their in house headsets and software.