Artemis

Want Artemis to Succeed? Virtual Reality Can Help

Artemis astronauts are returning to the Moon, and they’ll be following in Apollo’s footsteps when they go. But things are different this time. Not only is technology far more advanced, but so is the way we think about technology and how we design it.

A new paper shows how two of modern technology’s offspring— virtual reality (VR) and user-centred design (UCD)—can be brought to bear on the Artemis Program.

The Apollo era was 50 years ago now, and society has changed a lot. Computers are ubiquitous today, whereas, during the Apollo era, computers were confined to the realm of specialists. Those specialists had intimate knowledge of how computers and software worked, and they were the ones who used it.

But in modern times, powerful computer technology is in everyone’s hands. The widespread use of computers triggered a change in how society thinks about computers. Since the vast majority of users know very little about computers, the way they’re designed has changed. Instead of being tied to engineering constraints and built for specialists, computers and computer-reliant technologies are now designed with users in mind. Terms like user-centred design (UCD) and human-computer interface (HCI) encapsulate the change.

The only way to make technology effective for regular people is to make sure the design of the technology is centred on average users. That’s how user-centred design (UCD) came to be. It’s a process where technology designers focus on the users in each stage of the design process. The authors of a new paper think that UCD can be employed more effectively in Artemis, and virtual reality (VR) is the tool that can do it.

Astronauts typically train on prototypes of the actual equipment they’ll use on their missions. At one point, NASA evaluated lunar motorcycles for Apollo 15. NASA tested the motorcycle on a KC135A aircraft in a reduced gravity maneuver to mimic the Moon’s weaker gravity.

NASA tested a lunar motorcycle during reduced gravity maneuvers on a KC135A aircraft. Notice the padded walls. Image Credit: NASA

Astronauts also train in Earthly environments that are analogues of the Moon or the ISS. They head to deep dark caves that mimic the deep darkness in lunar craters or dry, dusty, boulder-strewn regions to mimic the lunar surface. They also train in special facilities like buoyancy pools that mimic the reduced gravity on the ISS.

The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) is an astronaut training facility and neutral buoyancy pool operated by NASA and located at the Sonny Carter Training Facility near the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. It holds 23 million litres (6.2 million gallons) of water and contains mock-ups of the ISS modules. Image Credit: By NASA Goddard Photo and Video – https://www.flickr.com/photos/24662369@N07/49565807881/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87326373

This kind of training is expensive and time-consuming, and that limits the amount of training that can be done. Using prototypes of actual mission equipment to train astronauts also adds to mission costs. But for Artemis, astronauts could make use of VR to prepare for their missions to the Moon, and it’s a lot less expensive than testing motorcycles inside aircraft or building massive pools with replica spacecraft in them.

The authors describe how using VR to train astronauts can bring UCD into a planning process that’s dominated by engineering constraints. It can be a more effective use of time and less expensive.

The paper is “Using Virtual Reality to Shape Humanity’s Return to the Moon: Key Takeaways from a Design Study.” The authors are from the ESA, the DLR, and other institutions in Europe.

The paper focuses on the European Large Logistics Lander (EL3.) The EL3 will be part of the Heracles mission to the lunar south pole. Heracles also includes a rover and a lunar ascent vehicle.

This illustration shows the EL3, including the lander, the rover, and the ascent vehicle. Image Credit: ESA

Lunar exploration is becoming more and more complex and requires greater levels of preparedness. The lunar environment is challenging to operate in because of weaker gravity, ubiquitous fine lunar dust, the limitations to the field of view and maneuverability inside space suits. Add mental and physical fatigue, lighting extremes, including pitch-black darkness, and thermal and atmospheric conditions. The backdrop for all of these challenges is a general uncertainty that the paper’s authors describe as “… often ambiguous mission criteria and still largely undefined operational scenarios.”

The lunar south pole is a region characterized by lighting extremes. The interiors of deep craters are in perpetual darkness, while higher elevations are bathed in perpetual sunlight. Typically, astronauts train in environments that are analogs of those conditions, like the aforementioned dark caves.

These are considered classical approaches to astronaut training. But they have their limitations. They’re expensive and logistically complex. That means that they can’t be employed as often as they should be and that there are fewer test subjects. This prohibits the implementation of elements of UCD like rapid prototyping and participatory design, where users give feedback and designers respond. UCD is iterative, meaning users try things out and give feedback, designers create new prototypes for users to test, and they give their feedback again. The end result is more strongly aligned with actual use.

The paper shows how VR can be used to introduce UCD into astronaut training and equipment design and bypass some of the expense and time involved with classical approaches. Space missions are notorious for going over budget and for being delayed, and VR can help with that, according to the authors.

This is not a huge stretch. VR is used in other endeavours that involve hazards and specialized equipment, like defence, aerospace, and resource extraction.

But so far, space agencies haven’t made widespread use of VR to train astronauts. The authors wrote their paper to show how that could change and to explain the benefits VR can bring to space missions. “… this paper investigates <the> potential use of Virtual Reality to simulate field studies and thus facilitate rapid and resource-efficient user-centred assessments of early-stage lunar surface prototypes.”

NASA has some experience with using VR to train astronauts. They used VR to train the Hubble space telescope flight team for a repair mission in 1993. They also use both VR and augmented reality (AR) on the ISS.

But VR can play a larger role, just as it does in non-space-related endeavours. VR-centered design methods are already leading the way in things like autonomous vehicles, healthcare, and complex robotic systems.

According to the authors, studies on VR have “… demonstrated the ability of VR simulations to gather a wide range of relevant user feedback on topics including usability, human factors and ergonomics, safety
and acceptability. By collecting such feedback in early stages of a project lifecycle, development teams have been able to better anticipate potential problems and lower risks for the overall production processes, resulting in a reduction in development and manufacturing costs.”

VR and UCD can bring those same benefits to Artemis, the authors explain.

To test their idea, the team carried out a simulated field study in a VR-based lunar operations scenario. They created a VR mock-up of the EL3, including cargo containers, a transport cart, an EVA suit, and a ladder to reach the lander. The team also created a virtual lunar landscape matching the lunar south pole and used it as the backdrop. They combined it all into a simulated cargo reception and off-loading scenario in a lunar environment. Then they invited relevant experts to test out their simulation.

This image shows the 3D model of the lander and related elements. Image Credit: Nilsson et al. 2023

The team recruited 20 hand-picked participants, including engineers, scientists, trainers, and two astronauts. All of the participants had some prior experience with VR, and three of the 20 described their experience as limited or very limited. The participants completed the cargo task without any time limits.

This table from the paper lists the job titles and areas of expertise of each participant. Image Credit: Nilsson et al. 2023

Overall, the participants took to the simulation quite well, having no trouble managing the VR controllers or completing the scenario. But some problems emerged in their feedback, and that feedback demonstrates exactly how VR and UCD can strengthen the Artemis missions to the Moon.

The lighting was difficult to work in since the Sun is so near to the horizon at the lunar south pole. Every object cast a long shadow, putting much of the simulation into total darkness. “The unique lighting conditions on the Moon’s south pole and their impact on future crew operations formed perhaps the most persistently recurring theme in our participants’ accounts,” the authors write. The darkness made even basic tasks like walking more difficult. It was particularly difficult when participants walked with the Sun at their backs, as their own deep shadow obscured their foot placement.

Conceptual illustration of permanently shadowed, shallow icy craters near the lunar south pole. Some regions in deeper craters are in perpetual darkness. Credits: UCLA/NASA

Several participants pointed out that their EVA headlamps were not bright enough to illuminate their paths. That kind of feedback is exactly what UCD is all about. The headlamp brightness can be increased during the next simulation, and participants can offer their feedback again.

The participant referred to as Manager 1 gave this feedback: “As you can see, there are these rocks for example. . .if you bump into this, you could fall down, or you could damage your suit. So what I tried to do was to go around in the light. I don’t expect the astronauts to work in complete shadow. Normally, what they would do. . . during EVAs on the space station they have lights on their helmets. This light will need to be more powerful than what I have here.”

This image shows astronaut Robert Behnken during an EVA in 2010. Note the headlamp on the side of the helmet. In order to operate in the lunar south pole’s deep shadows, a much brighter light will be needed. But how bright? Image Credit: NASA.

Some participants also noted that the beam width was too narrow. That can also be changed for the next simulation. The UCD process can repeat until the headlamp meets the user’s needs.

On the other hand, it became clear that when forced to face the Sun directly, the light can be overwhelming. Reflective surfaces on the lander and other equipment were also too bright, leading to problems. Thanks to UCD, the next simulation can change those surfaces to reduce glare.

VR and UCD can help with ergonomics, too. “Having the option to experience prototypes
interactively using an immersive 3D technology sparked numerous reflections concerning their dimensions and ergonomic appropriateness,” the authors write.

The handles on the cargo containers were difficult to grasp with EVA gloves. They’re too small, and both of the astronaut participants pointed this out.

Astronaut 1 said: “Everything we do with our hands in spacesuits needs to be big. The gloves are bulky and have very little dexterity. Little to none. It’s actually one of the main concerns of any extravehicular activity, how dexterous you can be. So if you want to help and make a design that is a little more conducive to productivity and speed. . . in this case I’d like to have a handle. A big fat handle that I
could use while doing EVA. When I look at these, these are not EVA interfaces.”

This is another opportunity for UCD to play a role. Change the size of the handles in the VR simulation, test again, and then change and test again until it’s optimal.

The true bulkiness of a spacesuit becomes clear when an astronaut removes their helmet, as in this official portrait of Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. Note the bulkiness of the gloves and their lack of dexterity. Image Credit: NASA/ESA

The paper presents other instances where the VR simulation enabled valuable feedback that could lead to improvements. But the authors were also clear about the limitations of their simulation. The simulation lacked what’s called haptic feedback. Most participants said that without that feedback, they couldn’t assess the center of mass of objects like cargo containers, making more detailed feedback difficult.

The simulation also couldn’t accurately mimic the difficulty of moving around in a bulky xEMU (Exploration Extra-Vehicular Mobility Unit.) “… Instructor 4 and Scientist 2 both argued that properly evaluating some procedures, such as climbing a ladder, can only be done once the suit limitations are
fully taken into account,” the authors write.

VR isn’t perfect, but this study shows that it can be a powerful tool. Physical prototyping is expensive and time-consuming, as is training in analogue environments or facilities like neutral buoyancy pools. This study shows how some prototyping and training can be off-loaded to VR simulations as it has in other realms like surgery and mining.

“Interactive simulations in VR provide the means for rapid assessment and iterative development of novel design concepts without incurring many of the financial, logistical or temporal costs typically associated with real-world prototype deployments,” the authors write in their conclusion.

VR simulations also allow more participants, and that means more feedback from more users, which strengthens design processes. Designers can’t think of everything, and neither can one set of users. By being available to more participants, the feedback will be broader and deeper.

Testing motorcycles in large aircraft is likely a thing of the past, and so are some of the clumsy design processes from the past. While the Moon hasn’t changed, what we expect from lunar exploration has changed, and how astronauts prepare is also changing. Virtual reality is a powerful tool that can help astronauts be more thoroughly prepared for more demanding missions.

And if Artemis is going to succeed in its ambitious goals, thorough preparation is key.

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Evan Gough

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