How VR Contributes to Space Exploration and Astronauts Training

Anton TrukhanovBlog

Even though technological progress makes this world easier and more comfortable for us humans to live in, there is still a lot of work performed by humans that can and most certainly should be considered as very demanding. Of course, any job can be tiring and affect your well-being, but some jobs are known to be particularly tough. Riggers, miners, construction workers, and divers, just to name a few, all have to work in harsh conditions.

But when it comes to working in a rough environment, it would be difficult to find a job more demanding and tough than the one astronauts have. An astronaut needs to possess a very extensive technical knowledge, perform complex tasks, and do it all in the most extreme environment possible, space. It’s no wonder that rigorous training is an unavoidable aspect of this job.

In order to even qualify for a space flight, astronauts need to go through different types of complex training, from centrifuge to gravity offload facilities and zero G airplanes. This training often requires rare and thus expensive equipment, which is only accessible in a few locations around the world.

NASA Astronaut Mike Hopkins trains on ARGOS, Photo credit: ESA

NASA, for instance, has to operate multiple complex facilities to simulate reduced gravity environments. To allow astronauts to experience a weightless environment of space, they require a special ARGOS system (Active Response Gravity Offload System). ARGOS uses an inline load cell to continuously offload a portion of a human or robotic payload’s weight during all dynamic motions, which can include walking, running, and jumping under Lunar or Martian gravity. Needless to say, building and maintaining such systems is a very complex and expensive task.

Virtual Reality presents a unique opportunity to conduct various types of full-fledged astronaut training, with manageable costs, high accessibility, and multiple other benefits. 

For example, VR allows you to conduct practical sessions even for spaceflight-specific activities, such as IVA (intra-vehicular activity), EVA (extravehicular activity also known as spacewalk), and even planetary EVA (also called moonwalk or marswalk).

Moonwalk simulator for astronauts, created by PaleBlue

Today these and many other complex training activities related to space missions can be accurately simulated with VR. In fact, this technology is already actively used for these purposes. NASA Space Center in Houston, for example, uses VR for training and space simulations for several years now. European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne also utilizes VR technology, including VR projects developed in collaboration with PaleBlue.

VR allows astronauts to conduct training sessions in a digital twin of a space station, whether that’s present-day ISS (International Space Station) or the upcoming Lunar Gateway station. It is also possible to plan and prepare for the upcoming 2024 next landing by modeling the landing site and predicted lighting conditions with high accuracy in a VR environment.

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Another huge advantage of using VR training for human spaceflight is accessibility and mobility of VR technologies. Astronauts can train in the virtual environment of a space station while being physically located in different parts of the world. Astronauts and scientists from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and ESA’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne can train together in the same digital ISS simulation model, preparing for upcoming missions and rehearsing different scenarios in normal or emergency situations.