“Here we go…”
“Whoah!” is all I can manage as I find myself transported from a cluttered office in Houston to Earth orbit. Below, 350km (220 miles) away, the blue and white crescent of the Earth. Above me is the glistening white hull of the International Space Station (ISS), its vast solar arrays glinting in the sunshine.
Nasa hasn’t invented teleport. This is the agency’s Virtual Reality (VR) Laboratory at the Johnson Space Centre where dreams of space travel really can come true.
The lab complements underwater training and prepares astronauts for EVAs [Extra Vehicular Activity] – space walks – and work with robotic arms. Most of the room looks like a regular office with desks, computers and monitors but the rear section resembles an eccentric gym. Ropes hang from the ceiling, metal boxes are suspended on bungee cords and the room is criss-crossed by lines and pulleys.
“That’s where most of the virtual reality takes place,” says James Tinch, chief engineer for the Robotics Astronaut Office and manager of the lab. “The crewmembers put on the helmets and they get the sensation that they’re at the space station. The metal boxes with the ropes and pulleys tied to them are a mass handling device, so the crews can get a feel for what it takes to handle a large mass in space and how much trouble they might have just to move it around.”
I sit on the chair at the centre of the test area and Tinch gently lowers a harness over my shoulders. This holds the electronics for the virtual reality helmet, which he tightens around my head, allowing me to see an image of the VR environment. Next come the gloves. They look like cycling gloves and are fitted with sensors for grip and movement. I pull them onto my fingers. A box mounted to the ceiling above me will track their position as I move my hands around.
Then Tinch clicks the start button and I’m in orbit reaching out to the handrail just outside the airlock. I truly feel that I’m in space and yet to look at me, I’m still sitting on a chair at the centre of a room.
“Right now you’re next to the ISS airlock, where the crew members come out,” says Tinch, calmly. But I’m feeling anything but calm as I struggle to comprehend my new surroundings.
Try before you buy
If I look down I can see the rest of my spacesuit; straight ahead and there are my hands, now encased in astronaut gloves, tightly clasping the handrail. After giving me a few minutes to get acquainted with the view, Tinch instructs me to try to pull myself across one of the space station modules by releasing my left hand from the rail and gripping again further along. The idea is to pull myself around, hand over hand. But I let go too quickly and end up pushing myself away. I try to ‘swim’ back towards the structure, waving my hands wildly back and forth, but realise there’s nothing to push against. One of the major challenges of space walking – and a fuller understanding of Newton’s laws of motion – starts to become apparent.
“In space your hands pretty well do all your work for you,” says Tinch. “So your legs can kick and do anything but they’re not helping you.”