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NASA Uses iPads To Train For Asteroid Exploration

Astronaut visitors to an undersea training habitat use iPads to simulate time-delayed communications and emergency training for planned 2025 asteroid mission.
Scary as the Apollo 13 story was, those astronauts were on a much shorter mission, a lot closer to home, than the asteroid explorers would be. Even in the absence of a life-threatening emergency, they and their counterparts on the ground would have to be prepared to improvise their way through many unexpected circumstances. That's what the NEEMO crew trained for, a situation that might be "not life-threatening, but urgent, one where there would not be the luxury of having two weeks to make the perfect training procedure," Reagan said. Instead, it might typically be a training that mission control would hustle together overnight. "Elaborate productions aren't going to be part of the solution," he said.

That's where he got the idea of using PowerPoint, an everyday office communication tool that could be used to deliver a procedure with a mix of words, images, and embedded video. The only catch in this plan was making the Microsoft slideshow authoring tool work with Apple's tablet as the playback device. SlideShark was close to what he was looking for, an app intended largely to allow sales and marketing professionals to give presentations from their iPads or iPhones, with a big emphasis on faithful rendering of PowerPoint content. At first, Reagan thought SlideShark fell short of what he needed because the first version he tried would play back video but not the associated audio. But BrainShark was able to provide a beta release that remedied that shortcoming, which is what was actually used for NEEMO 16.

Video turned out to be among the most effective modes of communicating this tutorial material, Reagan said, adding, "That kind of surprised me--some things are so simple I would have thought a picture and an arrow would have been the most effective way to communicate them."

One caveat to that finding is that on the real-life mission, bandwidth for transmitting presentations or anything else is likely to be severely limited. The deep-space network for human exploration doesn't exist yet, so the exact constraints are unknown. Still, the capacity to transmit large video files will be limited, as will be time for video production. The most effective way to use video in that context would be short clips, presented in context, Reagan said.

Example: Showing how to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and facebook.com/thebyard

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