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Faking it and making it—virtual reality helped EVA reach its 50-year milestone

March 19, 2015

Fifty years of spacewalks has been made possible by an emphasis on teamwork, experimentation and breakthroughs in technology. NASA Johnson Space Center’s Virtual Reality (VR) Laboratory is uniquely embedded in this historic anniversary through their contributions to space exploration.
The VR Lab started as an experiment in 1990 and has become a necessary training facility for integrated Extravehicular Activity (EVA) spacewalks and robotic simulation for astronauts ever since. The idea was spawned by David Homan, a now-retired NASA engineer, who was interested in developing a tool that would improve the efficiency in training astronauts for EVA. 
“They spent a lot of time on EVA just trying to communicate,” Homan said. “The VR Lab came into play to shorten communication time.” 
However, starting an entire new laboratory concept from scratch required pioneers savvy enough to keep up with the rapidly changing virtual reality technology. In the 1990s, commercial graphics hardware was just beginning to emerge on the market. The release of the film “Toy Story” proved that the entertainment industry was driving the technology, and the VR Lab was about to make an impact on the world of graphics and beyond. 
Each member of the VR lab was hand selected by Homan for their unique skills. Equipped with a team of pioneers, Homan emphasized the importance of experimentation and creativity in the lab, but always with a focus on the primary goal of improving EVA training. By refusing to allow the lab to get unnecessarily bogged down in overly restrictive procedures and processes, he created an atmosphere of productivity among the team, leading to very quick response to customer comments and requests. 
Brad Bell was the first engineer brought onboard the team, specializing in graphical software development. Homan reached out to him to rewrite and enhance a previously existing and fairly rudimentary graphics program. 
“Brad called me up and said ‘I got this done,’” Homan said. “It did exactly what I wanted it to do.” 
After that, the lab really began to take shape as requests started coming in from other organizations to solve problems by using virtual reality technology. 
“People would ask for what they wanted, and we would show them what we had,” Homan said.
The team expanded to include new capabilities as Jeff Hoblit and Evelyn Miralles brought their skills to the project. Through the lab’s development, Homan was careful to keep the focus on developing capabilities in support of EVA training, always working closely with their main customers: the astronauts and their instructors. 

“The customer had to be good advocates to keep us in this environment,” Bell said. 
After Homan retired, James Tinch came onboard and has led the lab ever since. 
“We want to make EVAs as efficient as they can be,” Tinch said. “We open the lab to everything.” 
One of the biggest projects the VR Lab works on is the Dynamic Onboard Ubiquitous Graphics (DOUG) software package, which is the primary graphical scene generator in the astronaut training simulations at JSC. The visuals in DOUG are so detailed and accurate that several spacewalking astronauts have commented that their real experience was just like the VR Lab.
DOUG and the VR Lab enable spacewalk procedures and communications to be pre-choreographed in training on the ground, which led to efficient operations in the assembly of the International Space Station when using the robotic shuttle and station arms, and performing repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope. 
In addition to EVA procedures review, the VR Lab also supports training for the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER) system, a “jet backpack” safety device for use should an EVA crew member ever become separated from the space station. The VR Lab serves as an immersive flight simulation of the SAFER, enabling astronauts to practice virtual rescue maneuvers. A special laptop training simulation for SAFER also flies aboard the station and is used to help astronauts keep their skills from deteriorating over long-duration flights. 
Additionally, the VR Lab supplied the astronauts very important training for the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver. After the Columbia accident, this procedure was developed to photograph the space shuttle orbiter’s tiles to look for damage that may have been sustained during ascent.  Astronauts practiced photographing the outside of the orbiter from the space station in a virtual environment using real cameras with specialized lenses, constructed in the lab, that projected the virtual image of the shuttle’s tiles onto the camera’s sensor. 
Through a spirit of collaboration, creativity and responsiveness, the people of the VR Lab have built a one-of-a-kind training facility in support of NASA’s EVA operations. Although this technology was not available during the first period of NASA’s 50 years of EVA, during the past few decades it has become an integral training tool in making NASA’s spacewalks an incredibly successful part of our journey to space exploration.

Anna Seils
NASA Johnson Space Center
Expedition 44/45 crew members Kimiya Yui and Kjell Lindgren during EVA hardware review in the VR Lab. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair
Expedition 44/45 crew members Kimiya Yui and Kjell Lindgren during EVA hardware review in the VR Lab. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair
Expedition 38/39 JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata during SAFER training in the VR Lab. Image Credit: NASA
Expedition 38/39 JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata during SAFER training in the VR Lab. Image Credit: NASA