The Integration of VR and AR in Space Design

Designing the Future of Space Habitats through Virtual and Augmented Realities

The realm of astronautical architecture is one where imagination knows no bounds. Imagination evokes innovations and helps identify areas that need to be researched. In our quest to create space habitats and space stations that not only keep the crew alive but in which the environment also “supports and enhances crew productivity” (M.M. Cohen, 2010) we can find Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) useful. These immersive technologies have taken centre stage, redefining the way we design, simulate, and prepare for the cosmic frontiers.

Exploring Uncharted Territories with Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality offers architects the ability to step into the future before a single brick is laid. It allows us to construct digital replicas of space habitats and immerse ourselves within them. In collaboration with astronauts, it also provides a chance for the design to be tested. Here are some of its compelling applications:

  • Design Validation: VR provides a dynamic platform to visualize and validate designs. Architects and users can walk through their creations, assessing the functionality of every component and making real-time adjustments. This leads to more ergonomic and efficient designs, ensuring that every inch of a habitat serves its purpose.
  • Simulating Cosmic Conditions: Space is unforgiving, with its harsh vacuum, extreme temperatures, and microgravity. VR allows the engineering team (space architects included) to simulate these conditions, enabling them to assess the performance of materials, systems, and equipment under the most challenging circumstances.
  • Collaborative Design: VR transcends geographical boundaries, enabling the team of engineers, architects, and scientists from around the world to collaborate seamlessly. They can jointly explore designs, troubleshoot issues, and refine concepts in a shared virtual space.

Augmented Reality: Bridging the Gap Between Digital and Physical

Augmented Reality, on the other hand, bridges the gap between the digital and physical worlds. It overlays digital information onto the real environment, offering a unique perspective on space design:

  • Real-time Data Overlay: AR can provide astronauts with real-time data and guidance during missions. Helmets equipped with AR displays can overlay critical information, enhancing situational awareness, emergency response and decision-making.
  • Spacecraft Maintenance: In the confined spaces of spacecraft, AR can be invaluable. Astronauts can use AR headsets to access digital manuals and schematics, simplifying complex repair and maintenance tasks.
  • Training and Simulation: AR transforms astronaut training by creating highly realistic simulations. It enables trainees to practice tasks such as extravehicular activities (spacewalks) and equipment repairs in a controlled, augmented environment.

Enhancing Astronaut Preparedness

The integration of VR and AR extends beyond design and simulation; it also plays a pivotal role in astronaut training:

  • Immersive Training: VR-based simulations allow astronauts to rehearse spacewalks and other mission-critical tasks in a safe and immersive environment. It can also influence decisions regarding the use and design of tools and equipment. This not only enhances their skills but also boosts their confidence.
  • Mental Preparedness: Space missions can be mentally taxing due to isolation and confinement. VR can be used to create scenarios that help astronauts prepare psychologically for the challenges of long-duration missions.
  • Real-world Scenarios: AR-based training provides a bridge between theoretical knowledge and real-world scenarios. Astronauts can practice using mission-critical equipment and performing tasks in a more interactive and realistic manner.

Home away from home

Although AR and VR are already proven to be useful on Earth, and can also be beneficial to be added to space stations and space habitats. During long-duration flights, long missions or extraterrestrial stays, the crew will need to keep up their training far away from home, but they can also take advantage of VR to help with mental stressors:

  • Training and preparing: AR and VR can be helpful for astronauts to prepare for certain scenarios during EVA or for critical repairs that require efficient and quick solutions. It could be used to simulate emergency situations so the crew can keep on practising their response.
  • Design testing: Far from Earth the crew will need to come up with their own solution and design a new tool, new elements and AR can provide the right outfit to test out their design ideas before any resource has been used.
  • Psychological stressors: The isolation and monotony can be detrimental. COVID and the unavoidable confinement have taught us that we need to get out of the space we see every day and we need to see new faces and change up our surroundings. VR can be an excellent tool to allow the crew to relax and destress (Olga Bannova – Space Architecture: Human Habitats Beyond Planet Earth, DOM Publishers, 2021)

As astronautical architects, we are not only crafting physical structures but we also have a chance to take advantage of the digital frontier. VR and AR have opened a new chapter in our quest to design optimal space habitats, and their applications extend far beyond the design phase. These immersive technologies will shape the future of space exploration, making it safer, more efficient, and more accessible than ever before.