Here's the amazing new VR and 3D printing tech NASA uses to prepare its astronauts for space

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is seen floating during a spacewalk on December 21, 2015 in space. Photo: NASA via Getty Images.

Hybrid Reality.

Never heard of it? Neither had I until I spoke with NASA engineer Matthew Noyes.

While it sounds like some futuristic dimension out of a sci-fi movie, it’s the new technology NASA is using to prepare its astronauts for space.

“It is combining together consumer virtual reality (VR) technology and tracked 3D objects together in one environment,” Noyes told Business Insider.

“It combines the best of the real and the virtual world into a much stronger and better sense of immersion.”

Noyes is one of the engineers behind the American space agency’s Hybrid Reality Lab, which was established in late 2015.

In the lab, Noyes and his team uses VR headsets, 3D printing, tracking technology and a crane-like robot that simulates reduced gravity, to create a near-space experience for astronauts in training.

“All of these things together allow us to make astronauts really feel like they are present in a simulation,” he said.

“(In space), if a problem occurs… they can’t directly ask mission control for help. It may be 20-30 minutes before mission control even knows there is a problem, and another 20 or 30 minutes before our astronauts get a response. They are truly all alone up there.

“The sad truth of human space flight is that the cost of failure is not just measured in dollars, it is measured in human life, and that is why we strive so much to make the system as realistic as possible.”

Here are the gadgets and how they work

VR isn’t a new concept for NASA. Used by the organisation for close to 20 years, it allows astronauts to familiarise themselves with the space station, and even adjust to what life will be like while in orbit.

In fact NASA is working with an Australian company, Opaque Media Group, to allow astronauts to look out of the space shuttle in VR and see an accurately modeled graphic of the world below.

The technology was originally designed for EarthLife – a video game which lets you feel what it would be like to be a NASA astronaut.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is seen inside the Cupola, a special module which provides a 360-degree viewing of the Earth and the International Space Station July 12, 2015 in space. Photo: NASA via Getty Images.

But VR technology isn’t enough by itself, according to Noyes.

“What VR lacks right now is the ability to have convincing touch interaction,” he says.

“What we want to do is to see how we can use virtual reality technology to make the training experience feel a lot more realistic.”

While there are technologies like gloves that deliver vibrations, and exoskeleton-like hardware that lets you feel like you’re holding something in your hand, he says it’s still far off from being like a real life experience.

So instead NASA is using 3D mock-ups of tools in combination with VR to create a lifelike sensation.

Using 3D printers, NASA creates low-cost mock-ups of tools, such as a space drill, and embeds this 3D replica with technology to make it vibrate as though it were the real tool they would use in space.

Then using VR and object tracking, the astronaut in training can hold the 3D mock-up but look at their hand in VR and see the space drill and feel it work as though it were real thing.

“We take that physical matter that people are actually touching, and we’re presenting an image of the object (in VR) that convinces them that it is real,” says Noyes.

These tools even have the weight adjusted so that it weighs the same it would in space.

“(That way) you capture how fatigue is going to affect their performance,” says Noyes.

Achieving zero gravity on Earth

That’s all well and good, but it’s not going to feel like space if you’re doing all that sitting down in a chair.

This is where the crane-like robot that simulates reduced gravity comes into it.

The Active Response Gravity Offload System, or ARGOS as Noyes refers to it, is used by NASA to suspend astronauts in the air.

“It offloads your body weight and accounts for your momentum in the vertical and horizontal directions,” says Noyes.

Before this NASA used things like the Vomit Comet, an aeroplane that flies up into the air in a parabola and comes down, giving you about 20 seconds of actual weightlessness.

Or the neutral buoyancy laboratory, which is basically a big pool used for doing sustained weightless activity achieved through buoyancy.

“Now that problem with that, even though it works really well at simulating weightlessness, is you get a lot of drag because of all the water around you,” says Noyes. “So if you’re working for five hours at a time, you’re going to get much more tired much more quickly.”

“We need the ability to do missions for hours at a time,” he said.

“If we use ARGOS for certain tasks, we still get that weightlessness sense… (and it) can all be collapsed into a single piece of hardware.”

By combining all three elements, astronauts are able to practise almost every task, as close to reality as possible, before they even get into space.

“We’ve had real astronauts test the system for themselves… and they say that it actually feels like they’re back in the space station.”

A general view of inside the Columbus simulator as is attached to the International Space Station. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/ Getty Images.

So, what’s next?

“Being able to train with other people in virtual reality means we can have people on the other side of the world that we can work together with,” says Noyes.

“We’ve talked with companies over in Europe that are working with ESA on things they could possibly do — we aren’t working directly with them at this point – but one of the end goals we want to achieve is a distributed training environment, where the International Space Station has a lot of modules that are maintained and designed by different agencies.

“Russia does some, Japan does some, ESA and we do some. So if we could have the possibility for astronauts in respective nations to network into a shared virtual environment, they could be in their host centres with hardware representative of what’s in the actual modules and they would all be able to work together as if they were in the same room.

“IT also open the opportunities for doing more outreach activities. People at home, with their own consumer headset, can log into a server and watch astronauts training in real time.”

It’s a big feat for a man whose life dream has been to work for NASA.

“I’ve always wanted to work for NASA ever since I was five years old and I visited the Space Center’s Visitor Centre, Kennedy’s Space Centre, in Florida.

“I read books on physics and the planets, I always took a lot of math intensive courses in high school and in university afterward.”

Did we mention he’s only 28?

*Matthew Noyes spoke to Business Insider while in Australia for PauseFest. The author traveled to Melbourne as a guest of PauseFest.

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