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  • Writer's picturePaula Bruno

Exploring Space in Virtual Reality: How NASA is Revolutionizing Astronaut Training.

NASA has long been at the forefront of technological innovation, and virtual reality (VR) is no exception. In recent years, the space agency has been leveraging VR to train astronauts and design spacecraft more efficiently and effectively. NASA's use of VR technology in astronaut training has been a game-changer, enabling astronauts to simulate spacewalks, practice emergency procedures, and acclimate to the unique environment of space in a safe and controlled manner. Additionally, NASA has been using VR technology to design and test spacecraft, allowing engineers to see how various components will fit together and identify any potential issues before physical prototypes are built. The application of VR technology has led to significant time and cost savings for NASA, and it is expected to continue to play a crucial role in the agency's future space missions.

Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is pictured wearing a virtual reality headset and

clicking a trackball for Time Perception, a study exploring how astronauts perceive space and time and possible effects

on navigation and fine motor coordination in microgravity.

Credits: NASA

The virtual reality (VR) market is rapidly growing, According to a recent report by Mordor Intelligence, the global virtual reality market size is projected to reach USD 62.1 billion by the end of 2023, growing at a CAGR of 33.47% from 2018 to 2023. This market growth is being driven by a number of factors, including the increased use of VR technology in fields like gaming, education, and training. By adopting cutting-edge technology and staying ahead of the curve, NASA is continuing to make groundbreaking advancements in the field of space exploration.

Use of VR by NASA:

  • Astronaut Training: NASA is using VR technology to provide astronauts with realistic simulations of the conditions they will face in space. This allows astronauts to practice and prepare for various tasks, such as spacewalks and handling equipment, in a safe and controlled environment.

  • Spacecraft Design: NASA is also using VR technology to simulate and design new spacecraft. This allows engineers and scientists to test and refine their designs before they are built, improving their efficiency and effectiveness.

  • Time Perception: Examines changes in how humans perceive time during and after long-duration exposure to microgravity. Crew members wear a head-mounted VR display, listen to instructions, and use a finger trackball connected to a laptop to respond. They take tests once a month during flight, as well as before launching to space and after returning to Earth, to evaluate adaptive changes.

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet tests out the equipment for the Immersive Exercise experiment on the ground before launch.

Credits: ESA , NASA.

Astronauts are trained in many ways, and the GRASP study is just one of them. The European Space Agency's (ESA) GRASP study is aimed at improving our understanding of how the perception of gravity influences our ability to reach for objects. This is accomplished by observing astronauts using a virtual reality (VR) headset to interact with virtual objects. When we reach for something, our brain combines sensory information such as sight and hearing with hand movements. Astronauts must physically adjust to microgravity to live in space, and their brains must adapt to the absence of traditional up and down orientation. By providing insights into this adaptation, the GRASP study has significant implications for supporting future long-term space exploration.

Alexander Gerst of ESA (European Space Agency) conducts a session for GRASP, an ESA-sponsored study on how the body

adapts to the microgravity environment using virtual reality headsets.

Credits: NASA

NASA's use of VR technology for astronaut training and spacecraft design is an example of their innovative approach to their operations. By using VR technology, NASA is improving the preparation of their astronauts and the efficiency and effectiveness of their spacecraft design process. As the VR market continues to grow, NASA's use of VR technology is likely to become an increasingly important part of its operations.

Photo of Dr. Jacquelyn Ford Morie, a VR Pioneer
Photo Credits: IGI Global

Exploring a recent use for VR for long-duration future astronauts with NASA: An Interview with Dr. Jacquelyn Ford Morie, a VR Pioneer

"In collaboration with SIFT Smart and Smart Information Flow Technologies and researcher Peggy Wu, I had the opportunity to work on a project for NASA in 2013-2016 that focused on the use of virtual reality (VR) for long-duration spaceflight support. The first task assigned to me was to write a technical report on how VR could be implemented to train astronauts, mitigate the psychological effects of isolation and sensory deprivation, and prepare them for long missions. Later, we built a virtual world ecosystem, ANSIBLE, which was deployed in a twelve-month isolation study to evaluate its capacity to maintain the social connection between participants in a Mars simulation analog environment and their friends and family living outside the habitat. The scientists who were sequestered for a year on a lava mountain in Hawaii had limited communication with the outside world, and ANSIBLE helped ease their isolation by providing them with creative tools and a platform to interact with their loved ones through recordings.
Our findings showed that the use of VR in space missions could significantly increase feelings of closeness, maintain interactions with loved ones, decrease stress, and give the perception that time is moving fast. By creating a dedicated virtual world based on OpenSim software, we allowed the scientists to explore creative outlets that they could use to build various things. Although VR was still emerging at the time, we were able to deploy the ANSIBLE virtual ecosystem in the Mars habitat with the scientists, using the Oculus DK-1 headset. The scientists could go into the virtual ecosystem on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, while their friends and family could interact with them on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday by leaving little recordings for them to watch.
In conclusion, the project was a great success in terms of demonstrating how VR can be used to mitigate the psychological effects of isolation and sensory deprivation over the course of a long mission. By providing an outlet in Virtual Reality, the scientists were able to keep themselves connected with their loved ones through the ANSIBLE virtual ecosystem. Our project was a groundbreaking achievement in VR and has the potential to revolutionize the way astronauts are trained and prepared for long-duration spaceflight missions.

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