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.”

Connie Miller with Varjo headset
Boeing programmer Connie Miller tests out the VR system Boeing

The astronauts in training are outfitted with a Varjo VR-2 headset which provides high-resolution images of the environment, allowing an accurate, detailed representation of screens and displays. Astronauts also use Valve Index controllers in their hands to simulate hand motions.

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.”

Why remote training is useful

Sometimes it’s useful to be able to train astronauts remotely for purely logistical reasons, as they might be traveling around the country. But there are also situations when remote training is the only kind of training possible, such as during the quarantine period that astronauts spend at the Kennedy Space Center before they launch on trips to the International Space Station.

Previously, it wasn’t possible for these astronauts in quarantine to train on simulators as there was not a physical simulator available. Now, they’ll be able to continue virtual training right up until their launch day.

Boeing Starliner Spacecraft Crew Module
Boeing Starliner Spacecraft Crew Module Boeing

Another future use for remote training is actually allowing astronauts to train on procedures such as re-entry and landing while they are still in orbit. The challenge with this particular goal is that VR headsets don’t currently work in microgravity. “The eye-tracking systems used for tracking are usually calibrated against the gravity on Earth,” Varjo CEO Niko Eiden explained. “But that’s something that could be adjusted.”

Varjo is considering creating a zero-G model of their headset next, which could be used in conjunction with a VR laptop to allow astronauts to train in VR while in space.

Training for the unexpected

The VR system can be used to practice a range of Starliner activities, from launch and landing to docking with the International Space Station. It can also be used to train on scenarios that would be dangerous to practice in other ways, like safety training for an emergency situation where there was a problem with the rocket during launch.

“The simulator acts as the craft would in an emergency, and it reacts to the steps the astronauts take,” Siceloff said. “In a dynamic environment, such as the launch and ascent, it helps testing the processes and decision trees that the astronauts have, and training them to do things like turning off the engine and aborting the launch if it came to that.”

Should such an emergency occur during a crewed flight of the Starliner, the capsule has launch abort engines which fire to propel the craft away from the rocket and carry the astronauts to safety before deploying parachutes to allow the capsule to land safely.

A troubled development

Boeing had been racing SpaceX to develop a capsule for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. But with SpaceX’s successful crewed test flight of its Crew Dragon capsule at the end of May, Boeing has fallen behind.

The Starliner capsule has had a troubled development, from delays to its timeline to problems deploying parachutes in early tests. The capsule’s first orbital test flight in December last year suffered from numerous issues, not only failing to reach its destination of the International Space Station but also experiencing software issues that could have lead to the destruction of the capsule.

Following the problems with the orbital test flight, Boeing admitted there were “gaps” in its software testing procedures and committed to performing more rigorous testing in the future. The company has since announced it will perform a second uncrewed orbital flight test of the capsule before performing any crewed tests.

The next phase of testing

The VR system has already been tried out by the commander of the Starliner, Chris Ferguson, who will be one of the members of the first Crewed Flight Test (CFT) of the spacecraft along with NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke. Boeing does not currently have set dates for this test flight to the International Space Station, but it looks like it could go ahead next year.

Before the crewed test flight, there will be a second orbital flight test (or OFT-2) which is scheduled for this fall. “The Starliner engineers have been working through all of the results of the first orbital test flight,” Siceloff said. “There’s still a lot to do… The team and NASA have been working very hard on this. After we’ve finished OFT-2 we can pinpoint a date for CFT.”

Until then, the crew and the other astronauts in training will be able to continue experiencing and learning about the Starliner virtually through the simulator.

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