Boeing's new VR simulator immerses astronauts in space training
Boeing’s Starliner craft is headed to space, but first its astronauts are training in virtual reality.
The American aerospace company is part of the NASA commercial crew program — the same one that sent SpaceX's Crew Dragon to the International Space Station with two NASA astronauts onboard last month — and to prep for its upcoming missions to the ISS it announced a new partnership with a Finnish VR company, Varjo.
Varjo's VR experience with a headset and hand controls for Boeing recreates the mission from pre-launch, docking, undocking to landing. Connie Miller, a programmer for Boeing Starliner, said it feels very realistic, with your hands digitally displayed in gloves. "You very much get the presence of being in the simulator," she said in a phone call.
Boeing is no stranger to space simulators, but this is one that doesn't require astronauts to be in a real-life location like the Space Center in Houston, Texas. As Boeing spokesperson for the International Space Station Steve Siceloff explained in a recent call, "simulators are to train on Earth for what you're going to encounter on space."
With the added layer of VR, it feels like more than just sitting in the cockpit of the reusable space craft, Siceloff said. Trainees can activate switches and maneuver the control panel. "But it's not just familiarization," he said. "It's running through the processes."
Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson will soon start using the Varjo VR training system to prep for the Crew Flight Test, the first crewed Starliner mission expected to happen in 2021. The benefits of VR training are even more apparent during the coronavirus outbreak, but this program was in the works before the pandemic. The remote training will also let astronauts continue practicing during the two-week quarantine ahead of missions. Usually it's impossible to have that time dedicated to more simulation.
"It's a true high-res experience any astronaut can train with," Siceloff concluded. One day Miller hopes to incorporate more augmented reality for a truly immersive training experience to prepare astronauts for real space travel.