Author: Lillian Hong ’20

Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences/Electronic Arts

When you’re floating through space, the only thing between you and instantaneous death is a thin little visor.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, is the only NASA center that specializes in human spaceflight training. With multiple lives at such high stakes, JSC makes sure astronauts get the best possible training to prepare for their missions.

Since there’s nothing on Earth like orbiting a planet at 5 miles per second, we have to replicate the experience virtually. Virtual reality (VR) has been a critical part of NASA’s training for over 20 years, far before consumer headsets began being released to the public. It can imitate anything from extravehicular space walks outside the International Space Station (ISS) to operating an emergency space jetpack.

Most VR experiences today allow users to look in a 360-degree environment and interact exclusively with the remotes given. JSC’s Hybrid Reality and Advanced Operational Concepts Lab aims to take the VR immersion one step further by fusing in physical aspects of the virtual environment. For example, if you reach for a rail on the ISS that you see in VR, you will be able to grab it physically. Valve’s HTC Vive and room-scale technology allows trackers to match up the placement of physical objects and virtual objects with extreme accuracy.

As a VR 3D art intern at the Hybrid Reality Lab, my major project is to develop a photo-realistic 3D model of the interior of the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle. The goal is to allow a user to sit inside the vehicle cockpit in VR and drive it over lunar or Martian terrain.

For NASA, visual accuracy is important. In order for astronauts to be familiar with how to control vehicles and use tools, the virtual assets need to look as close to the real thing as possible. Even if an astronaut has never seen a vehicle in their life, they are able to sit down comfortably and navigate with the confidence of already having been through the simulation hundreds of times.

As a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute junior dual majoring in games and simulation arts and sciences and electronic arts, I have been passionate about developing VR simulations with real-world applications ever since high school. Combined with my lifelong love for astronomy, interning at NASA has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.

To find out more about my projects and view my portfolio, visit