How Virtual Reality is taking the Space Industry by its reins

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    Evelyn Miralles is the lead engineer of the Virtual Reality Lab at NASA Johnson Space Centre (JSC). She has been working with NASA since 1992 and has a vast experience in developing products to support Human Space Flight at NASA JSC.

    She has earned much recognition for her work and is seen as an inspiration for women in STEM. She was named CNET’s International Women’s Day Inspiring Women for 2018 as well as on of BBC 100 Inspirational Women. Moreover, Miralles was also granted NASA Space Flight Safety Award “Silver Snoopy Award”.

    Ana Guzman, ideaXme Space Ambassador had the opportunity of interviewing Miralles, and thus we are provided with a unique insight into the functions and workings of the Virtual Reality Lab and how space conditions are replicated in the lab to train astronauts.

    Working with Virtual Reality Development

    “Well, I have different roles, different things that I support within the lab. It is mainly about computer support, computer programming, software development and its design and implementation and also hardware integration with the software. Hardware is where I can talk about virtual reality. We integrate anything that has to do with virtual reality systems into the whole training session that we have in the lab.

    It is like choreographing a mission; we do all the graphical representation and provide the VR as a way of immersing the astronauts in the environment and let them figure out how to proceed and do the spacewalk.

    I also do a lot of development work for different projects that come our way so that we can develop the ideas in making a reality. There are a lot of parts in a lot of areas that need to be covered within the lab when one is maintaining a training facility, especially for astronauts. I mean, the configuration of the graphics has to be done daily and weekly so that we maintain the latest configuration of the vehicle. Whether we have maintained the shuttle or now the space station or whatever it could be in the future, that entire configuration has to be up-to-date as well. So I help with the 3D graphics, imagining anything that has to do with maintaining that kind of data.

    Also, of course, there are a lot of meetings that happen for the development of the future. I also do consultation for which technology to choose for the future exploration missions that we are going to have at NASA.

    So there is a lot of work in many areas. I have also done Network administration at some point.”

    What her job entails at the VR Lab

    “Our job at the virtual reality lab is to provide training for spacewalks. Now spacewalks encounter robotic separation that goes with the spacewalk. So if there is going to be a mission with those kinds of scenarios, we can also provide it in the lab so that they can rehearse it. It is like choreographing that kind of mission and we do all the graphical representation and provide the VR as a way of immersing the astronauts in the environment and let them figure out how to proceed and do this spacewalk. That is just one of the activities that we support.

    We also have the SAFER training. SAFER (Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue) is the jetpack that astronauts use in order to rescue themselves if they get detached from the space station. SAFER can actually be simulated in the lab and we train the astronauts to get proficient and being able to fly that machine.”

    We receive many messages of the astronauts which they not only send when they come back to us but also while on the flight. They give us a lot of excitement and courage to continue.

    VR mass handling

    “The last activity will be mass handling. The VR mass handling is basically simulating what a robot allows us to simulate when moving a mass in zero gravity. Very gently, just a couple of 2-3 feet in all directions in about 20 degrees rotation and we can simulate moving that mass and give some a little touch into how to move that zero-g. We implement it into the graphics and also immerse it with the helmets so they can actually believe that they are moving in mass. So all those activities that I mentioned here are done in the lab.”

    Rehearsing before the actual Spacewalk

    “We use our software graphics. Software that we call Dynamic Onboard Ubiquitous System (DOUG) which we use for the graphical representation of all the outside activity that is going to happen. We create with DOUG a step-by-step procedural development so that they can just follow whatever steps it takes until we can represent it full spacewalk.”

    Feedback from the astronauts

    “We had many messages of the astronauts which they not only said when they came back to us but also on the flight. It was once that, I cannot exactly recall the year, and I was looking the other day to see to respond that question somebody asked. There was an astronaut, Bill McArthur, who was
    asked in his flight how the EVA (Extravehicular Activity) went and how everything was. He said, “Well, I want to thank that we are loved because the tool they created was fantastic. This was an amazing training and everything looked just like the VR lab.” So he gave us a lot of excitement and courage to continue.

    Condensation and transcription done by Iqra Naveed and Umama Nasir. 
    The transcription of this interview has been edited to improve fluency.

    Credit:

    By Ana Guzman, ideaXme Space Ambassador. Follow on Twitter: @mupwa

    With permission of ideaXme, a global podcast, ambassador and mentor programme. ideaXme interviews the creators and innovators who shape our world. They speak to all those who Move the human story forward! ideaXme Ltd.

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    Read, listen to, or watch the ideaXme interviews here:
    Lead Engineer at NASA’s Virtual Reality Lab Inspires Women in STEM While Keeping Ahead in VR Software Development
    Youtube Evelyn Miralles, Visionary Innovator at NASA
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