Training astronauts for the perils of space travel without actually sending them out of the atmosphere has always proved difficult. How can you ready someone for such a unique experience before actually launching them out into orbit?
Finland-based company Varjo has a solution: virtual reality. The company announced today that it’s teamed up with Boeing to train astronauts using custom VR hardware and software. The VR experience replicates every step of the upcoming Starliner space mission to the International Space Station, allowing the team of astronauts to visualize and experience the mission without taking their feet off the ground.
Virtual reality isn’t new, nor is it new to astronaut training solutions, but it’s really taken off in recent years as the hardware has improved and the costs have fallen. Traditionally, VR's use in simulations for space programs has been limited because of a lack of resolution — astronauts need to be able to see every button and switch, along with their own hands, for VR training to really be effective. Varjo's managed to make that possible.
A long time coming — Using virtual reality to simulate space missions has been a topic of interest for researchers for a long time. Connie Miller, a programmer at Boeing, and Jim May, a spaceflight training software engineer, have been exploring the opportunity since 2017.
The final product took years to complete because, as a highly ambitious product, many collaborators around the world needed to pitch in on its development. Boeing developers in Australia modeled the Starliner spacecraft using Unreal Engine, while Houston programmers worked on integrating VR with existing physical simulator hardware.
Miller and her colleagues had tested as many VR headsets as possible to find the most effective solution. They settled on Varjo’s VR-2 for its human-eye resolution capabilities.
Start to finish in one headset — There’s plenty of technology available to simulate what it feels like to fly through space — it’s been used for years by NASA to train astronauts’ bodies for zero gravity and other intense space-travel situations. But Varjo’s VR system will allow astronauts-in-training to actually experience the full mission in real-time, all from one location.
The realistic VR simulation begins with pre-launch preparations and takes astronauts through the entire upcoming mission. It even includes in-flight controls, monitors, and real-time data, all of which can be manipulated with hand-tracking. It also means training can happen remotely, rather than needing astronauts to be in a specific location.
Dreaming bigger — We already know virtual reality is capable of transporting us to different worlds, thanks to video games. Now we’re seeing its potential as a practical training solution for dangerous jobs like flying a spacecraft.
There are some big barriers to entry when it comes to VR, like high costs and intense programming and hardware needs. That’s why it’s taken so long for Boeing to get this project off the ground. And that’s exactly why the project is important: because it proves VR solutions can be worth the time and money.
The new simulator will be used by the Starliner crew over the next year as it prepares for launch in 2021. Hundreds of hours will be dedicated to virtually experiencing the mission from end-to-end before the real thing happens. When you’re launching yourself into space, that kind of training is essential... and invaluable.