Walking through space in NASA’s Virtual Reality Lab – Howtoshtab – how to, lifehacks, tips and tricks

Oh no! Oh, this is stressful. Oh, hey! That’s me, tumbling through space. Throughout my career, I’ve met a few astronauts, but I never really got to see how they train for missions. Today, I’ve convinced NASA to show me how astronauts learn to do their jobs before going to space. And that means doing a lot of simulations — to learn the basics, and also to prepare for the worst-case scenarios. We’re here at the Systems Engineering Simulator facility. It’s basically fancy talk for: “We’re going to drive some spaceships!” NASA wants to go into deep space and potentially to Mars.

And astronauts are going to need to a way to get around fast when they’re on the surface of another planet. Best way to do that? A monster rover. I’m in a rover right now, or at least part of a rover. It’s a simulation used so that crew members can test out what it will be like to ride around on the surfaces of different planets. Since NASA wants to go to Mars, we are in Jezero Crater on Mars right now. Which they think was a lake bed at one time, so of course it’s somewhere we’re interested in exploring further in the future. So you have your hand controller there. That is going to control driving. So, that’s both acceleration and steering for the rover. Now this isn’t like your normal car. We have way more wheels here, right? That’s right. So, how many wheels do we have on this thing? You have 12 wheels total, so six sets of two. The 12 wheels can move in 360 degrees.

That means the rover is capable of basically moving in any direction: forward, back, sideways, even spin in around in a circle. It takes a while for the wheels to adjust, though, so it felt kind of slow. You also have to keep in mind that we have one-third of Earth’s gravity here. So it’s going to drive a little squirrely sometimes, a little more bouncy. Gotcha. If I want to move forward, I just push forward? Right. And then I’ve run into this thing. The Mars Ascent Vehicle, yeah. I’ve just destroyed billions of dollars worth of hardware. So now we can’t leave. We’re stuck on Mars forever now. Driving in a nice, comfy rover is fun and all, but it’s not that immersive of an experience. You’re kind of just sitting still moving a joystick. Plus, it’s not really practical right now since astronauts won’t be going to Mars for many years. But something that is a big part of astronaut training these days is spacewalks. This is the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Being underwater is the closest thing we have on Earth to re-creating the sensation of zero-g.

That giant structure you see inside is an actual replica of the International Space Station. For testing, astronauts have to suit up outside the pool — with a lot of help — and then get slowly lowered in. Unfortunately, I won’t be going in the pool today, but we have some tech supplement for the time being. I’m headed to Johnson Space Center’s Virtual Reality Lab. It’s where NASA trains astronauts to learn how to do their spacewalks. First up: learning how to maneuver outside the station. I have to replace a battery. One of the things you can do here with this model, since you’re in VR, is you can actually figure out what it’s going to take to get from the airlock, or from your current worksite, out to a new worksite. What you’re going to do, is we’re going to start you out here on the truss. Youre right around S-Zero, which is one of the truss segments. Turns out, replacing a battery in space is way harder than changing out the batteries in your remote.

It’s a two-person job, with one astronaut pulling out the old battery and the other handing over a new unit. Sounds easy, right? Piece of cake. VR is great at showing you exactly where everything is going to be out there — and whether you have a good enough wingspan. Got it. Oh, I’m attached. Okay, now you can see you’re climbing on the handrail. Oh, wow. Okay, so I want to go — there’s my destination. I see it. Yeah, look off to your right. It’s bright yellow. Hey, you’re good at this. I think they’re testing for a new astronaut class coming in. You know what? You should just go ahead and apply. I’m clearly the frontrunner now. Alright, I’m here! Is that it? That’s it for now. But what would happen if your spacewalk didn’t go smoothly? Astronauts are always tethered to the ISS during spacewalks, but NASA always plans for the remote possibility of someone getting disconnected.

Well, I was going to experience that terrifying scenario by getting knocked off the station. And then I had to get back before, you know, I burned up in the atmosphere. When they go outside, in case they ever become separated from the space station — so that they don’t float off, which would be bad — they came up with a safety device that’s basically a jet backpack. It’s called SAFER. Aptly named. NASA thinks of SAFER as a life jacket in space. It’s worn like a backpack, with jet thrusters that are steered by a hand controller. So far, SAFER has never been needed for an actual emergency. And that’s good, because this is a pretty dangerous scenario and you don’t have a lot of time to get back. And what about, how much fuel do you have before you run out? Approximately five to 10 minutes worth of fuel, depending on how aggressive you are with your fuel use.

So, it’s a you’re racing against the clock kind of thing? Yes. Yeah, so you can’t just take your time out there. You need to get back. If you’re out there for more than, say, 15 minutes, it gets very unlikely you’re going to rescue. So, there I am. That tiny astronaut hanging out at the Quest Joint Airlock. And there I am… getting farther and farther away from safety. Okay, we’re going to make you wait just a little bit now before I power up the unit. They leave you spinning for a little bit, because you wouldn’t be able to get your bearings right away. You’ve got to slow yourself down and get yourself under control. I think I’d also be screaming. And now you would have the hand controller out and you would power it on. And now it’s going to cancel out your rotations.

Okay. You’ll see yourself coming to a stop. Alright. So now, I need to… Look around and find the station. The station is definitely to my left. Okay, so yaw to your left. Okay, you’ll want to pitch down just a little bit. You see that round, horseshoe-shaped thing? That is the airlock. So, you want to point right back at that spot. Now that I’m facing the station, it’s time to switch modes. Now you want to go over to translation mode. That means I can move forward and back, or left and right in a straight line. And now, start moving towards it. Okay, here we go. I think we might have changed the game. It’s a slow process. Again, you don’t want to go fast. Am I going too fast? No, you’re not going too fast. In space, a little bit of thrust goes a long way. All you need is just a slight push to send you going in the right direction. Again, the translations are very slow. Okay, but George Clooney moved so much faster. Just reach out. Help me! If you can grab structure, you’re safe. And now I’m a part of the space station.

And that was the easiest case scenario. Other simulations have astronauts moving away from the station four times faster than that. And at night. Well, how long did it take me to get back? Would I have actually made it? Four and a half minutes. Okay, so I’m a speed demon. Clearly I’m a spacewalk master, but there’s still a whole ton of things astronauts have to do that I haven’t trained for — like working the robotic arm or doing lab experiments in zero gravity. In fact, it’s a two-year training process before you can even be assigned to a mission. These simulations are just the tip of the iceberg..

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