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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.

NASA Curiosity Visual Tour: Mars, Revealed
NASA Curiosity Visual Tour: Mars, Revealed
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"Houston, we have a problem. Think you can rustle up a quick PowerPoint on how to solve it?"

NASA put men on the moon and successfully addressed near-disasters such as the explosion aboard the Apollo 13 command module with vastly less computing power than you can carry in your pocket these days. The next time astronauts visit a virgin world, they might carry iPads, as did those training in an underwater habitat this summer for project NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO). The exercise took place at the Aquarius Reef Base undersea research habitat off the coast of Key Largo, 63 feet below the surface, which provides a rough analog for the harsh environment and zero gravity environment of a space mission.

A big part of June's NEEMO 16 mission was practicing collaboration and just-in-time training techniques for a deep-space mission, where the speed of light is a significant obstacle to communication. The iPad "was actually one of the key technologies that allowed us to do a mission as complicated as we did," NEEMO mission director Marc Reagan said.

As a condition of the interview, I promised to make it clear that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is not in the business of endorsing specific products. However, NASA is actively seeking to take advantage of consumer technologies where practical, Reagan said. Because consumer products and applications benefit from lots of development dollars and practical testing by thousands of users, "that's always going to be a better solution than a custom built application, if you can find one that does what you need to do," he said.

[ Read about iPads in a more down-to-earth environment: iPads In Factories: Early Lessons From GE. ]

The use of iPads on a space mission is not at all far-fetched. In fact, they ought to turn up aboard the International Space Station by the end of the year. "I think they're scheduled to go up on a launch in October," said Brandi Dean of NASA public affairs.

Reagan cautioned that commercial technologies must go through a far more rigorous screening process before they are allowed to fly in space. On a simulated mission like NEEMO, it's relatively easy to approve a device for use based on little more than the same Underwriters Laboratory certification you'd expect for a household appliance, he said.

For NEEMO 16, the Apple tablet computer was used to simulate time-delayed radio communication, organize mission plans, and deliver training. The just-in-time mode of training simulated on the mission could be an important element of addressing the next "Houston, we have a problem" moment and without a doubt will be part of the answer to many smaller problems.

Specifically, the NEEMO crew was practicing the kinds of tasks they would have to undertake during the exploration of a near-earth asteroid, which is what President Obama has set as NASA's next step in manned space exploration. The proposed mission, targeted for 2025, would send astronauts on a 270-day mission, most of which would be spent traveling to the asteroid, maneuvering to match its orbit, and then returning home. NEEMO specifically simulates the exploration portion of the mission, which would be about a two-week sprint to explore the space rock.

The NEEMO 16 crew included Commander Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger of NASA; European Space Agency astronaut Timothy Peake; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Kimiya Yui; and Steven W. Squyres, Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University and chairman of the NASA Advisory Council. Space fans will recognize Squyres as the principal investigator behind the Mars Exploration Rover mission that included the Spirit and Opportunity robots. The NEEMO crew began and ended every day with a "space walk" by two of the astronauts--or aquanauts--coordinated by two other crew members aboard Aquarius. The mission also received logistical support from two crew members associated with the reef base.

Aquanauts Tim Peake (ESA) and Steve Squyres (Cornell Univeristy) inside the Aquarius habitat with their iPads and some curious marine observers. (Photo courtesy NASA)

I heard about the use of iPads in this context from the people at Brainshark, who wanted to boast about the use of their SlideShark app for iPad and iPhone by the NEEMO crew to display PowerPoint presentations.

An iPad might or might not be the right choice in 2025, but in 2012 it made sense as a computing platform with a large variety of applications available. Critically for NEEMO 16, Reagan found an iPad app that simulated the "voice loop" used for radio communications between mission control and the spacecraft--the system for managing multiple conversations by different mission specialists, all going on simultaneously. The crew and mission control personnel used the iPad software, in combination with headsets, to talk to each other. All communications were fed through a communications delay emulator, a "black box" that spooled transmissions between the crew and mission control before letting them go through.

The NEEMO crew also experimented with texting as an alternative to audio communications, figuring that the time delay for replies might feel more natural in that medium. Because they couldn't find an iPad-based texting program that was compatible with their signal delay emulator, they used laptops for that portion of the experiment.

The planned asteroid rendezvous would require traveling about one-tenth of the distance between the Earth and the Sun, far enough that radio transmissions would take 50 seconds, one way. That's enough to interfere with normal conversation, particularly a technical conversation where it might be helpful to ask for clarifications. "You're looking at 1 minute, 40 seconds, best case, before any question can be answered," Reagan explained.

In other words, it helps a lot if you can make your initial communication as clear as possible.

"We know from 40-plus years of human space flight experience that we're not going to be able to train a crew on every single thing they might have to do on a space mission," Reagan said. "On a long mission, you're going to have to do things you weren't trained on specifically. The classic example is maintenance, where something needs to be repaired or replaced." That is, you could spend the rest of your life training in electronics and machine shop techniques and not cover every contingency, he said.

The crew gathers in front of the hatch to the Aquarius undersea laboratory at the start of the NEEMO 16 mission. (Photo courtesy NASA, Credit: Mark Widick)

"If you think about what you do in your own life, if you have a problem with your car, the first thing you might do is go to YouTube, and some kind soul might have posted a video showing how to fix it," Reagan said.

More to the point, think of the scene from the Ron Howard movie "Apollo 13," dramatizing the life-or-death challenge of saving the astronauts from suffocation because their air was running out. This is after Tom Hanks, in the role of astronaut Jim Lovell, delivers the movie tagline about trouble on board, and after the crew has retreated from the damaged command module, using the Lunar lander as a lifeboat. Because the lander was designed to support two astronauts, not three, engineers on the ground had to improvise a procedure to "make a square peg fit in a round hole" so the carbon dioxide scrubbing filters from one spacecraft would work with the life support system of the other. They pulled it off on the basis of radioed instructions from the ground, from which the astronauts made handwritten notes about what to do, in what order.

"That's exactly the kind of thing that was in the back of my mind when we were working on this," Reagan admitted. "That's the extreme case, the limiting case, of what we're trying to learn to do better."

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

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