Space tech spinoffs: how space innovations help us back on Earth

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You can read the full article on p39 at e-Metro (originally published in Metro on 29 April 2016).

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How VR and AR could turn you into a bona fide space explorer

12444-c9a15545b69790cfe97a93810d1c1e12Mainstream virtual reality is still in its infancy but it’s been tackling the final frontier – space – for years. Now the latest hardware, such as the Oculus RiftHTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR headsets, combined with sophisticated 360-degree filming techniques, is finally bringing space exploration to the masses.

VR’s ability to produce large-scale 3D environments not only offers armchair astronauts a glimpse of what life is like in space, it is now also more helpful than ever at aiding real-life astronauts in their jobs both on Earth and out there. 

What’s more, augmented reality can offer spacemen and women a new perspective by merging the worlds of Earth and space. Compared to VR, though, augmented reality still has some way to go before we start to see smartglasses and AR helmets both on our faces and in our homes.

Training astronauts

While virtual reality has been relatively slow to catch on in the mainstream, NASA has been using it for more than 25 years because it’s simply one of the best ways to replicate space while remaining safely on home soil.

“Simulated environments have always been important in astronaut training,” explains Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division.

The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronaut crews all spent at least one third of their training time in simulators and contemporary crews use VR simulations to train for tasks on the International Space Station (ISS).

Early NASA headsets were improvised affairs – the first prototype of the Virtual Environment Workstation headset was built from a motorcycle helmet – and the American space agency has continued to update the tech involved. Astronauts now use NASA’s Virtual Reality Lab (VRL), located at the Johnson Space Center, to train for missions aboard the ISS. Using a headset, real-time graphics and motion simulators, astronauts train to carry out tasks during microgravity spacewalks.

A vital part of the training involves using their powered jetpack – the Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue (SAFER) – which carries very limited fuel, to navigate their way back to the ISS should they get stranded in space. 

The ability to recreate a life-size 3D environment makes VR ideal for astronaut training and now NASA is looking at using augmented reality to keep reality in the frame.

You can read the full article at Wareable (originally published 20 April 2016).

The Great British Take-Off: Brits in Space

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ESA astronaut Tim Peake

Next year Tim Peake, a former Major in the British Army Air Corps, will be Britain’s first official astronaut to make it into space. Selected by the European Space Agency (ESA), Peake will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) where he’ll spend six months carrying out experiments on the ESA’s Columbus laboratory module.

While he’ll be our first official astronaut, he won’t be the first Briton in space – that honour goes to Helen Sharman, a chemist who was selected from 13,000 hopefuls for Project Juno – a joint mission between the Soviet Union and a consortium of British companies in 1991. Sharman was also the first woman aboard the Mir space station.

A handful of Brits – albeit ones with American citizenship – flew missions aboard Nasa’s space shuttle programme before its retirement in 2011, while two other astronauts with dual nationality took self-funded flights on the Russian Soyuz. Bizarrely, English soprano Sarah Brightman is in training for a privately funded seat aboard the Soyuz in 2015.

However, Peake is the first to boldly go where just a handful of Brits have gone before as part of an official astronaut corps and is due to blast off on Soyuz TMA-19M in November 2015 as part of Expedition 46, alongside Russian Commander Yuri Malenchenko and Nasa’s Timothy Kopra.

As a home-grown space adventurer, clearly Peake has the potential to become something of a celebrity, in a similar vein to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield), whose Tweets from the ISS managed to captivate the Twitterverse and make being an astronaut look like just about the best thing in the world (and beyond).

Peake has already made a great start as poster boy for the British space contingent on Twitter (@astro_timpeake) and Flickr and he hasn’t even left the planet yet.

Naturally, we’re all hoping that the ESA has already been in touch with David Bowie to enable Peake to do a rendition of Space Oddity on the ISS, just as Hadfield did. However, he’s already cast doubt on our dreams, quipping:

“I do play the guitar, but very badly, and I wouldn’t inflict my singing on anybody.”

Come on, Tim!

While he might not be blessing us with his vocal talents (or lack thereof) any time soon, Peake has teamed up with maverick chef Heston Blumenthal to launch the Great British Space Dinner – a competition to invent a “tasty meal with a hint of Britishness” to offer a cosy slice of home while he’s on the space station.????????????????????????????????

And while we’re on the subject of taste, it’s no secret that Lavazza recently unveiled the first coffee machine designed for use in space – the superbly named ISSpresso – which will make its way to the ISS in November 2014. But wouldn’t Brit Peake prefer a nice cup of tea?

The Sussex-born spaceman sets the record straight:

“Tea in the morning, and a cup of coffee at 11 o’clock”.

He didn’t say what biscuits he prefers with his cuppa, but his quintessentially British precision when it comes to hot beverage timetables is admirable.

Space-friendly coffee machines aside, the list of innovations that filter through from space exploration programmes to consumers is, well, astronomical.

From new ways of improving commercial flight safety and superconductors that enable lower cost MRI scanners, to producing more realistic terrains in video games and making your car seats more comfy – it’s almost certain that you will have benefitted from these advances in some way.

Nasa estimates that over the last ten years alone, its spinoff innovations have created 18,000 jobs, reduced costs by $4.9bn, generated $5.1bn and saved 444,000 lives.

But if spaceflight is so beneficial to us down on Earth, then why has the UK never made any plans to put together a British astronaut corps? As you can probably guess, it all comes down to cost – with a manned spaceflight programme deemed prohibitively expensive for our frugal country’s wallet.

However, while the UK Space Agency doesn’t have its own crew of astronauts, it is a member of the ESA, providing a rather modest 6% of the European collective’s budget (although it doesn’t supply any direct funding for the ISS).Tim Peake

Further adding to Blighty’s space credentials, the UK Space Agency recently announced the eight coastal locations – six of which are in Scotland – that are under consideration to become the UK’s first spaceport. Due to open by 2018, the first site would provide a base for satellite launches as well as defence and military applications. It could also provide a lift-off point for space tourism companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Of all the suggested sites, my personal preference for a ‘local’ spaceport would have to be Glasgow Prestwick Airport, purely as it was the only place where Elvis Presley ever set foot in the UK thanks to a refueling stop en route from his army service in Germany. Just imagine the crossover merchandise possibilities in the gift shop.

In the meantime, Tim Peake will be flying the flag for the UK, and hopefully learning the chords to Space Oddity, if only because the lyric “Ground control to Major Tim…” is simply too good to waste.

Let’s all raise our bone china teacups to the Great British Take-Off.

This article was originally published on 17 July 2014 on The Huffington Post UK.