Apollo 11

VR and Space

VR-cations for the mind on the long trip to Mars.

Read more about all aspects of Virtual Reality technology

In March 2015, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko and American astronaut Scott Kelly set off for the International Space Station. A year later they have just returned, so they didn’t beat the record 437 days and 7 hours set by Valeri Polyakov from January 1994 to March 1995. Nasa has long used VR to help prepare astronauts for tasks that they’ll perform during voyages ever since the Hubble telescope needed repairing in 1993. However, with journeys to Mars being planned, one former astronaut, Jay Buckley, has decided to see if VR can help maintain astronauts’ mental health by exposing them virtually to the world they’ve left behind.

Nasa says that it takes around eight months to get to Mars, maybe less by the time the first astronauts make the trip. Still, going without sunlight or fresh air for that long is not good for a person’s mental health.

VR has long been thought to have therapeutic value and Buckley, who is now Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School, wants to find out if it can help astronauts combat the effects of long-term isolation.

The VR program contains scenery designed to calm the mind. “The VR tricks the brain into thinking you’re outside strolling on a beach, or with family at home,” says Dartmouth Professor Lorie Loeb.

The technology has been tested during an eight-month astronaut training camp on a volcanic island in Hawaii. Buckley’s team has also given Oculus Rift headsets to Canadian military personnel stationed 500 miles from the North Pole: a small group of people in a confined and hostile space.

Nasa predicts that its first Mars spaceflight will happen in 2030. Potential astronauts are still at school, so the space agency has designed a VR Mars experience game with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and game developer Fusion to help inspire kids to take up a career in space.

During short missions, players explore and interact with the Martian landscape in a Z-2 space suit, a real prototype currently under development at Nasa. Players also get to drive the Mars Rover prototype. Virtually, of course. Game designers produced the Mars landscape using video and audio footage from recent space missions.

The Mars 2030 Experience will be out later this year and so will Apollo 11 VR, a launch title on the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PSVR. Here, players relive Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the Moon, using audio and images actually used by Nasa’s Mission Control centre in 1969, and footage captured by the legendary astronauts themselves. Players lift-off, dock the lunar module, walk across the surface of the moon and carry out experiments.

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