Simulated: A Look Inside Spaceflight Training

He would soon regret not wearing his brown pants on this day.

Ripley: How many drops is this for you, Lieutenant?
Gorman: Thirty eight… simulated.
Vasquez: How many *combat* drops?
Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.
Drake: S**t.
Hudson: Oh, man…

via IMDB

In Aliens, James Cameron excellently framed the ability of Lieutenant Gorman to lead his Colonial Marines into combat through this exchange on training.  The inference is clear, ‘simulated’ is not as good as the real thing.  ‘Simulated’ doesn’t really prepare you to lead your troops into combat.  No one will ever argue that simulations are a true substitute for real world experience, but for spaceflight training, simulations represent the most practical way for NASA and other space agencies around the globe to prepare astronauts and flight controllers for the risks of human spaceflight.

NASA runs simulations almost daily for several different reasons:

  1. To see if new personnel have the knowledge, ability, and mettle to be flight controllers,
  2. To practice for a specific mission and ensure everyone on the team knows their roles and responsibilities,
  3. To make sure the activities for a given mission day are practical or sequenced appropriately,
  4. To ensure everyone involved is ready for the worst case scenario.

Why do we need to do all this in simulations?  That’s a pretty straightforward answer.  We simulate something because it’s either too expensive, too risky, or not practical to train on-the-job while in space.  You don’t want the first time you learn how to respond to a fire on-board the International Space Station to be the first time you ever practice how to put out that fire.  You don’t want the first time you figure out what to do when a Space Shuttle main engine fails to be during launch when one of the main engines fail.  You want to know what to do in those situations as innately as possible so that instead of thinking about what to do, you are reacting and doing what you need to do.  It’s the same reason that sports teams practice plays again and again, you want to develop muscle memory, instinct, and quick reactions in order to best handle the moment.

We also don’t want to find out in the middle of a serious failure on-board the ISS or Shuttle that a flight controller can’t handle the stress and makes poor decisions under pressure.  When that moment happens, the existence of the vehicle could be threatened, the continuation of a program, and most importantly, lives could be on the line.  You have to succeed, you have to remain focused, and you have to be able to do the right thing.  So we practice, we practice, and we practice some more.

Just what is a simulation?  In many ways, it can feel like a giant video game.  NASA uses highly detailed and complex computer models to create a simulation of the real ISS or Shuttle.  The simulator model has to behave appropriately in every way possible: it needs to follow the laws of physics as it travels through a virtual Earth orbit, its components such as air conditioners, smoke detectors, etc., must behave as they do on the real vehicle, its virtual atmosphere must behave like the real thing (e.g. heating up when heaters are on, carbon dioxide levels rising due to crewmembers breathing etc.), it needs to give you a visual representation of what you’re supposed to be seeing (e.g. when do you see the runway during shuttle landing), and it needs to let you know what you should hear or feel in a given activity.

Now, it’s not practical or cost-effective for us to fully simulate everything to this level of detail.  So we have to prioritize the things that we think really need to be as lifelike as possible.  If something could threaten the life of the crew or the existence of the vehicle, we put a high priority on recreating that and practicing how to respond to those situations.  We also need to simulate enough of the vehicle to give the flight control team a plausible feeling of reality.

One of the cardinal rules of simulations is that you do not acknowledge that you are ‘only’ in a simulation.  That gives the impression that you are not behaving as you would in the real world and are not taking it as seriously as you should or would in real life and as such aren’t responding with the appropriate urgency.  The onus is on the trainer to create as immersive an environment as possible.

One of our challenges in training is to create the most realistic representation of the vehicle.  For every piece of equipment added, NASA has to decide how do you train it.  Is it important enough that we need an exact replica on the ground?  Or is it okay to have something that just looks like that piece of equipment?  Or do I need even need that and I can just get away with a picture of the thing?

One thing we absolutely cannot simulate is the microgravity environment astronauts experience in low Earth orbit.  We try our best in spacewalk training through the use of a large pool i the Neutral Buoyancy Facility, but we have no way of truly reflecting that feeling of weightlessness, at least not until some fundamental breakthroughs that lead us into a capability only found in science fiction.

That doesn’t stop us from creating real stress in our flight controllers or crew in their training.  Hopefully, when all is said and done, they’ll recognize, unlike Lieutenant Gorman, when it’s necessary to pull their team out because they’re about to get slaughtered by some ruthless xenomorphs (aliens*).

*-This should not be taken literally and does not mean that we train astronauts how to deal with alien encounters.

About Jason
Family man. NASA manager. Writer. Football fan. Hockey fan. Deist. Left of center. Left-handed. Born in New Jersey, raised in Philadelphia, college educated in Massachusetts, now living in Houston. Thoughts here are my own.

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