Astronauts take a safer spacewalk

Scientists at the US the National Space Biomedical Research Institute are developing virtual reality training tools help future astronauts adapt to disorientation in space.

Work and life on board the International Space Station sounds glamorous, but moving from one section of the spacecraft to another could create real problems for future crews.

Life without gravity can cause astronauts to become disoriented and, possibly, suffer space motion sickness. Also, inner ear and disorientation problems can lead to confusion when performing simple tasks such as reaching for a control or finding a tool.

‘Our bodies are designed for Earth’s gravity, and gravity tells our brain which way we are oriented,’ said Dr. Charles Oman, head of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute’s (NSBRI) Neurovestibular Adaptation Team.

‘In space, your perception of down is constantly changing as you rotate in the weightless environment. Disorientation occurs because, without gravity, the inner ear no longer provides the brain with information about the body’s ‘up’ or ‘down’ position,’ he added.

Oman is leading a group of NSBRI researchers trying to remedy disorientation problems by investigating how a person uses their sense of where they are relative to other objects and places.

The group is developing a virtual reality-training tool to help astronauts learn techniques and pre-flight strategies they can apply in space to help them work their way through a large and complex space vehicle.

The Virtual-Reality Orientation and Navigation Trainer is a head-mounted display that shows generic computer-generated virtual-reality scenes.

Users traverse a route through several modules and then must indicate the direction home. The device tests how crewmembers maintain orientation and learn to navigate within a spacecraft.

The group is also investigating the inner-ear factors that leave astronauts in another potentially perilous position.

With nothing in their visual field below them astronauts on spacewalks are said to have reported high-anxiety levels and the sense of falling even though logic tells them they won’t.

Members of Oman’s team are also working with investigators at NASA to develop a marking system that will help lead astronauts to crew-return vehicles if an emergency occurs.