The next resupply mission to the International Space Station by SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft is scheduled in a few days. Among the items being sent to the astronauts is an HTC virtual reality headset, which will be used to preserve the mental health of the astronauts. This marks an unprecedented experience in “space therapy,” and Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen of the European Space Agency will be testing it in real conditions.
Astronauts’ health in space is a major concern for space agencies, especially as they prepare for upcoming milestones in human exploration, including lunar settlements in the next decade and the first manned missions to Mars and an asteroid.
Space travel has various impacts on astronauts’ bodies, including effects on bones, muscles, organs, ocular pathologies, venous thrombosis, sensory issues, radiation exposure, and cardiovascular system modifications. Mental health is also affected during orbital missions.
During space missions, regardless of duration, astronauts experience isolation, a minimally stimulating environment, repetitive tasks, and stressful and demanding work that can be mentally exhausting and potentially lead to mental health issues.
Virtual Reality for Helmets to Relieve Pressure and Stress
To address these challenges, space agencies implement a range of preventive measures. Astronauts engage in physical activity, ensure adequate sleep, have periods of relaxation, and use technology for communication, including space telephony, the internet, video conferencing, and now, virtual reality. Virtual reality is emerging as a tool that could become essential for future manned missions.
A New Kind of Space Therapy
In this context, Nord-Space Aps has initiated a virtual assistance program for mental well-being, specifically designed to meet the needs of astronauts to maintain their mental health in orbit. This virtual reality space therapy will utilize the HTC VIVE Focus 3 headset with a simulator mode, specially developed and adapted to function in microgravity. Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen, currently aboard the ISS for the Huginn mission, will be the first astronaut in space to use a virtual reality headset for preventive purposes.
A Helmet Configured to Work Properly in Orbit
Using a virtual reality headset in microgravity posed challenges in tracking and orientation due to movements, rolls, and content drift, causing nausea and hindering astronauts from reading the content. Previous attempts with other virtual reality headsets resulted in a loss of tracking after a few minutes of use.
Nord-Space Aps, HTC, and XRHealth collaborated to design a virtual reality platform capable of functioning in space using a simulator mode and specialized tracking methodology via controllers. This configured headset, usable in microgravity conditions and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in virtual reality, was chosen over several other headsets.
For HTC, the selection of their headset by NASA, ESA, XRHealth, and Nord-Space Aps is seen as an “incredible honor to address some of humanity’s most complex challenges in space exploration: isolation and mental health,” according to Cher Wang, HTC’s President and Co-Founder. Eran Orr, CEO of XRHealth, expressed being “thrilled and proud to deploy the first headset on a space mission to relieve pressure and stress, enabling astronauts to maintain optimal performance during crucial space missions.” Per Lundahl Thomsen, CTO of Nord-Space Aps, emphasized the imperative of creating a virtual platform that addresses “astronauts’ mental health needs during their isolation to maintain a healthy lifestyle upon their return to Earth.”