A Terrifying Virtual View Of Floating Away From The Space Station

by Elizabeth Howell on March 21, 2014

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A virtual-reality view of what it would look like if you were floating away from the International Space Station. Credit: European Space Agency (YouTube)

A virtual-reality view of what it would look like if you were floating away from the International Space Station. Credit: European Space Agency (YouTube)

You wanna talk about fear? This view would likely be many people’s worst nightmare — being in a spacesuit, untethered, floating away from the International Space Station and its relative safety. NASA has astronauts covered for this Gravity-type scenario, however, with a sort of jet backpack that can send astronauts back to safety.

A new video featuring European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst (also embedded below) explains the steps an astronaut would take to swing back to safety. “We actually train how to use that in the virtual reality lab,” he said shortly after the video showed an astronaut floating away.

The key lies in a system called SAFER (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue), which Gerst has practiced on numerous times (virtually) in preparation for his flight in May, which could involve spacewalks if NASA addresses a spacesuit water leak problem in time.

“You have to train it for a while to operate and actually come back, and not miss the station and fly into the blackness of space,” Gerst said.

An astronaut floating away from the International Space Station in virtual-reality training for emergencies. Credit: European Space Agency/YouTube (screenshot)

An astronaut floating away from the International Space Station in virtual-reality training for emergencies. Credit: European Space Agency/YouTube (screenshot)

The Russian Orlan spacesuit (which Gerst is also trained on) does not have such a system, but Roscosmos gets around that by having a different procedure for spacewalking than the Americans. The Russians mandate a minimum of two attachment points to station at all times, whether it’s a pair of tethers or a tether and a gripped hand.

Gerst emphasizes a floating away scenario is unlikely, in either case — it would involve losing the anchor, losing the tether and also losing your grip all at the same time. While this has never actually happened, NASA did test the SAFER system in space on STS-64 in 1994 with a crew member standing by on the Canadarm robotic arm if something went wrong.  In 2000, two astronauts aboard STS-92 each did a 50-foot flight with the system.

In 2006, the SAFER system got a little loose on the back of astronaut Piers Sellers, necessitating a tether fix. NASA emphasized that the system was not in danger of being lost.

You can view the section on SAFER in the video below at around 6 minutes. Gerst recorded this as a summary of his training ahead of Expedition 40/41, which lifts off in May.

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About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Olaf March 22, 2014 at 8:58 AM

This simulation made me curious about the movie Gravity.

It is strange, that movie, they did so hard to make realistic effects and then throw it all overboard in the most unrealistic possible way. It is nowhere near as realistic as they are showing in this simulation.

e.g. Towing away Sandra Bullock with a cable making it incredible hard to fly the MMU.

e.g. the MMU, he was flying like a cowboy around wasting every gas he had.

e.g. Sandra Bullock depleted out of oxygen, but she is staying outside instead of getting in the air lock. Violating Astronaut training reflexes.

e.g. Hanging at the parachute strings at the ISS, and the guy astronaut commits suicide because he was too heavy. It is in space. The mass of the astronaut might be heavy but you do not have to pull the string hard to get back.

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