NASA uses physical mockups, neutral buoyancy, zero-G “vomit comet” airplane rides and other complex and pricey schemes to train ISS astronauts. However, virtual reality has become a new option that allows astronauts to do realistic training for things like maintenance in an accurate and simulated zero-G environment. The company that helped them frame the sim, Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, recently revealed a video showing exactly how that works.
NASA recently grouped with Oculus on Mission: ISS, a consumer education Virtual Reality experience aboard the ISS. However, the training SIM NASA is establishing with Unreal Engine is different altogether, and they appear to be using both the HTC’s Vive headsets and Oculus Rift.
Matthew Noyes, NASA Software Engineer says, the setup uses “physics simulations and cutting edge graphics to increase the sense of presence”. He further added, “The more practical the training feels, the faster you can respond in real-world, critical situations, which could save your mission or even your life.” As Ars Technica noted after trying it out earlier this month, the VR is realistic enough that it can even stimulate blooming. After looking up at the digital “sky,” your pupils must dilate before you can see any stars, the same thing astronauts experience in space.
NASA ISS astronauts that have tried the sim say it nearly matches what it feels like to handle objects in zero G. The training consists of simulated maintenance, letting you use the Vive’s control wand to grab tools and other objects aboard the ISS. To create the mixed-reality simulation of gravity even more immersive, it also works with an “active response gravity offload system”, basically a crane that flies astronauts around to simulate zero, mars or lunar gravity.
Since this is still an incomplete NASA simulation, Noyes told Ars that the sim team was also working on a public release, though no dates have been discussed. The main idea behind this would be to create both a public outreach product alongside an actual SIM something that might both inspire and train young wannabe astronauts.