Astronauts are using VR to train for the Boeing Starliner capsule
Training astronauts is no easy task. From practicing zero-gravity maneuvers in underwater recreations of the International Space Station to taking trainees aboard the infamous Vomit Comet aircraft, trainers have to get creative to find ways to teach astronauts how to work in the strange conditions of space.
Now, Boeing has a new tool in its training arsenal for its upcoming Starliner crew capsule: Using virtual reality (VR) to recreate the spacecraft interior and allowing up to three astronauts to act as crew in virtual missions which let them train every aspect of launching, docking, and landing the new craft.
Digital Trends spoke to engineers from Boeing and VR hardware company Varjo to learn more about how virtual training is helping tomorrow space explorers.
Building a virtual spacecraft
To allow astronauts to train in VR, the engineers first had to create a virtual version of the Starliner spacecraft, right down to the tiniest details of switches, screens, and control panels. The problem with most VR hardware for this type of application is that it isn’t high enough definition to allow users to read text on screens unless they lean in close. So they needed hardware which allowed human eye-level resolution for the trainee astronauts to be able to interact with the controls using their hands in a natural way.
“We’ve modeled the interior of the Starliner,” Boeing space program software engineer Connie Miller explained. “It has a very photorealistic feel, with the console and the layout of the Starliner. We’ve also modeled the gloves, so when they sit at the console they can see their hands and interact with everything on the screen.”
Combining the virtual and the physical
Boeing already has a physical simulator of the Starliner, called the Boeing Mission Simulator, located in Houston. This recreation of a Starliner spacecraft is the size of a room and includes a full flight deck with seats for three crew members: A pilot, a commander, and a mission specialist, along with a control panel like the one in the real craft.
The VR system is integrated with this physical simulator, “so any scenarios they run on the physical simulator, you can emulate in VR,” Miller said.
“For the astronaut in training, it’s very much like being in the physical simulator,” she said.
This means that a crew of astronauts can train on the physical simulator and the VR simulator at the same time. One crew member can be in training while two others fulfill their mission functions and get feedback from each other in real-time — even if they are located in a completely different part of the country.
When in VR, “you are integrated into the servers that run the physical simulator,” Boeing spokesperson Steve Siceloff explained. “And if astronauts are sitting in the physical simulator, to them the spacecraft acts just like it would with the astronaut who’s remotely training on the VR simulator. That’s a level of integration that’s never been possible before.”