Marissa Rosenberg : Training Astronauts with Virtual Reality


Marissa Rosenberg is a NASA-based neuroscientist who is so enthusiastic about virtual reality she’s using it to train astronauts for their return to Earth. She talks to us about exactly how to become an astronaut, the importance of technology in modern space travel and just how NASA are gearing up for life on Mars.

Nikki Stefanoff: I want to start by asking you the question I’ve always wanted to ask: How exactly does one get a job working for NASA?
Marissa Rosenberg: Well, my path to NASA was somewhat of a random walk! I was lucky enough to be with my parents visiting family friends near Cape Canaveral the night of a shuttle launch. I was able to see the launch on TV, then run outside and see the real thing and run back and see it on TV. As a three-year-old, this was an incredibly magical experience for me, and according to my parents from that moment on I wanted to become an astronaut.

As I got older, I really enjoyed and excelled in science and math, still with the passion and drive to explore space. Unfortunately, there’s no degree to become an astronaut so I eventually had to decide between science, engineering or medicine. This was around the time that the Hubble Deep Field image was taken (in 1995 the Hubble Space Telescope started observing one of the darkest most starless parts of the sky for approximately 10 days and captured stunning images that revealed around 3,000 galaxies) and I was completely drawn to this idea that even the darkest part of the sky was cluttered with galaxies both near and far away. This eventually led me down the path to pursue a Bachelors of Astrophysics from the University of California, Los Angeles. During this time, I spent my summers interning at NASA as part of NASA Academy, an internship focusing on leadership in the space industry along with scientific research.

After my Bachelor’s, I knew that I wanted to travel but I also wanted to gain the perspective of how the international community views the US. Combining my desire for travel with the fact that astronauts should not have any gaps in their career trajectory convinced me to pursue my graduate studies outside of the US. I settled on following my true passion and was accepted to an international, interdisciplinary and intercultural space studies program at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. There I learned the true breadth of the space industry, learning about the business, finance, insurance, engineering, science, physiology and even the art of spaceflight.

Alas, after my year of space-tastic learning, I went back to astronomy for my PhD at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. There I studied ultra-luminous infrared galaxies and what exactly made them so ultra-bright. Finally, after finishing my PhD, I took a moment to survey my current accomplishments and compare that to my life-long goal of becoming an astronaut. I realised that although I loved astronomy, there was something missing for me. I could not easily communicate my science and why I was passionate about it to non-astronomers. Additionally, I missed working and helping people. Astronomy is somewhat of a noble science, where there is not a lot of technology or knowledge transfer between discoveries in astronomy and things that can directly help people.

It was the culmination of these things that encouraged me to look for a different career path, and I was fortunate enough to find an intensive, hands-on Master’s program in Space Physiology and Health at King’s College, London, so I jumped into the world of human physiology in extreme environments. I was immediately drawn to neuroscience, since the brain is somewhat like a computer and was much easier for my physicist brain to understand than the more biology heavy fields of cardiovascular, respiratory, and musculoskeletal physiology. I was especially drawn to the field of sensorimotor physiology, which is just the study of how your brain reads in the signals from your eyes, balance organs, muscles, joints, and skin pressure, integrates those signals and creates a map in your brain of your whole body’s orientation with respect to your environment (for instance this explains how you can point very accurately to your toe without seeing it). The sensorimotor system is also responsible for sending signals and commands out of the brain to control the body in the appropriate way to maintain balance and do things as simple as walking or standing up from a chair, that we take for granted. Interestingly, this system is heavily affected by spaceflight, with astronauts coming back from six months on the International Space Station and taking seven seconds to stand up from a chair. The most basic tasks are extremely effected and it takes astronauts around two weeks to fully recover. I was a sponge for everything I learned about this topic.

Luckily, I had the opportunity to do my Master’s thesis research on vehicle control (think landing on a planet or driving a buggy on Mars) in different simulated gravity levels as part of a collaboration between Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Man-Vehicle Laboratory and Harvard’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. I used this hands on experience testing human subjects with my data analysis and research skills from my PhD to be awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship at NASA Johnson Space Center working on a project called Field Test, which I was eventually permanently hired to work on. For Field Test, our team spreads across the globe to test the astronauts balance and coordination throughout their journey home after landing in the Kazakhstan desert. We test them first in the medical tent, approximately an hour after they landed. We test them next around 12 hours after landing when their plane stops to re-fuel, usually in Scotland. Finally, we test them about 24 hours after landing as soon as they return to Houston.

And that is the very long story of how I ended up at NASA!

Wow, what an incredible story. You worked so hard to reach your dream job.
Yes! I’m still trying to become an astronaut!

Marissa Rosenberg in conversation with Nikki Stefanoff
Photos courtesy of NASA
Photo credit: NASA/W. Sisler

Photo credit: NASA/W. Sisler

Photo credit: NASA/W.Sisler, 1988

Photo credit: NASA/W.Sisler, 1988

Photo credit: NASA, 1993

Photo credit: NASA, 1993


So, from what I understand, virtual reality, which is the area you’re working in at NASA, has played a long-standing role in training astronauts – how has it changed over the years?
I have to preface what I say with the fact that I am a neuroscientist first, and a VR enthusiast second. That being said, I do know that VR has been used to train tasks and procedures for a long time. I think the biggest advancements now are with the commercially available VR systems at a low cost. At NASA we recently started a VR Community of Practice that brings together all people using VR at NASA and the variety of applications is really astonishing. Some of the current applications include vehicle design (especially the interior design and getting a feel for cabin layouts, exercise space, and even things like wall or lighting color), task training (how to fix the space toilet), pilot training (stopping yourself from an uncontrolled spin with a jet pack), and now even sensorimotor training (preventing the lack of balance and coordination after landing).

Do NASA build their own VR systems?
I believe this was done previously, but NASA is actually a huge fan of using commercial off-the-shelf technologies (COTS). It saves us time, money, and resources if we can take a product that we need from someone who specialises in making that exact thing. That way, we can focus on things like designing the trainings and environments within the VR system.

How long would an astronaut train in VR before heading into space? Actually, how much training do they do full stop? In a nutshell, how do you become an astronaut? It’s not often I get to speak to someone who personally knows one.
Great question. It is an incredibly long process. Once you are selected to be an astronaut, you’re technically still not an astronaut, but you’re an AsCan (yes, for real) which stands for Astronaut Candidate. Your first task once you become an AsCan is to learn Russian. They enter an intensive one-on-one Russian Language immersion program, that luckily us mere humans at NASA also benefit from (free Russian language classes for all!). Then, over the next two years the AsCans train on International Space Station systems, extravehicular activity (space walk) skills, aircraft flight readiness, robotics skills, scuba diving and extreme swimming evaluations. If they pass their final assessment they graduate to astronauts. At that point, they enter the pool of astronauts that can be selected to missions. Once they are assigned for a specific mission, they enter another two-to-three-year period of training for that mission. As far as how much training is done in VR, I really couldn’t say. I think it varies from one crewmember to the next. The training regime that I am proposing to use on the astronauts to help prevent balance and coordination problems after landing would be just three to four sessions (about 1 hour each) before they launch.

When astronauts return to Earth do they say that the VR training was an integral part of knowing what they were doing up there? How different of an experience is VR vs space?
I have to say that for the VR training I designed, we’ve not yet been able to test its effectiveness on astronauts so I couldn’t say directly. I can imagine though, as a first time flyer, getting to tour the International Space Station in an incredibly high fidelity and fully immersive environment would be helpful.

Your area is in helping them when they return to Earth. What do they need help with and how do you approach it?
The most pressing thing astronauts need help with is balance. When they land in the Kazakhstan desert, they are carried out of the Soyuz capsule and placed in these reclining chairs for a moment. Then after a period seated in these chairs, they are carried to the medical tent. There they receive whatever medical attention they need, often getting intravenous fluids and anti-nausea medication. Only recently, with the Field Test study, were we able to go out into the field and test their physical capabilities. We have them start with basic tasks, standing up from a chair, standing up from lying on the ground, and then get more complicated, walking around a cone, stepping over an obstacle and performing a heel-to-toe tandem walk. From these tasks, it is clear that the astronauts are incredibly balance-challenged at landing, scoring about 10 percent correct steps for the tandem walk, compared to 100 percent correct steps before their flight. Along with struggling with balance and coordination, they are extremely motion sick.

So this is where VR comes in for me, my goal is to use VR to simulate the disorientation that they feel right when they land. I can then use that simulation to train them before they fly to ignore this disorientation and maintain their balance. That way, when we land on the Moon or Mars and there is not a whole medical team waiting to help the astronauts when they land, they will be able to exit the space craft and get to their habitat safely.

Are you thinking that the VR will help to speed up their recovery on landing?
The VR training should give astronauts the tools to, what we call, learn to learn. We can throw challenging environments at the astronauts, disorienting visual scene, perceived motion when you’re not moving, and we make them work through it. We can coach them in different ways, for instance to pay attention to how the ground feels and use that cue, or to ignore everything but their eye sight, and through these trainings, the astronauts will learn what strategy works best for them. Their brain will learn exactly what to do next time it’s disoriented to maintain their balance.

Photo credit: NASA/L. Harnett, 2014

Photo credit: NASA/L. Harnett, 2014


How did you become interested in this side of things? Usually everyone thinks about getting into space, it’s not very often that we think about what happens when astronauts return.
I was actually more interested in the motion sickness astronauts experience right when they get to space as well, but after talking to the principal investigator of field test (Dr Millard Reschke), who has been testing astronauts for decades, he made it clear that the real problem is when they land. It’s not a problem now, since they land in a desert and we can deploy the medical tent and essentially carry them around and medicate them until they feel better, but looking forward to the US plan to land in the water, this is a critical issue. At this point, if the crew landed in the water and needed to get out and into a life raft before the rescue team had arrived, they would be extremely hard pressed to do so, and the astronauts would be at a very large risk of injury or worse. Not to mention when astronauts have to land on another planetary body without any medical team. So although we are focusing on them when they return, it is mostly to make sure that they will be safe and functioning well when they land on another planet.

Is VR set to change the future of space travel?
This is a hard question, but I believe, as do most people at NASA, the answer is: yes, immensely. We struggle with so many difficulties for humans on mission to Mars and I would argue that a huge percentage of them are mitigated with VR. Some of the things we are most worried about are exercise, maintaining crew health (both mental and physical), fixing broken hardware, isolation, boredom, confined spaces, no real-time communication with Earth, and keeping the team as a whole functioning well. All of these issues can be addressed with virtual reality. Exercise in VR takes running on a treadmill staring at a white wall every day and turns it into a competitive game. Health can be monitored in virtual reality, interactive VR trainings can be given to deal with different medical emergencies that may arise, similarly with fixing hardware, the isolation, boredom, and confined spaces can also all be addressed with virtual reality. Providing expansive scenes in nature where people can relax and explore. Games that keep people entertained, and team challenges to keep the team working well together and keeps the environment new and exciting. I think most people at NASA admit that a trip to Mars will be much improved with virtual reality.


‘The VR training should give astronauts the tools to, what we call, learn to learn.’

This interview was produced in partnership with Pause Festival and features in issue 1.
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Nikki Stefanoff is editor of Matters Journal. After spending 13 years editing and writing for newspapers and magazines in London, Nikki now uses her journalism background and love of a good chat to find powerful and meaningful stories to tell.