MIT Team Develops New Tool To Expedite Astronaut Training
October 18, 2013

MIT Team Develops New Tool To Expedite Astronaut Training

[ Watch the Video: Astronaut Training The MIT Way ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Researchers at MIT have found a new way to train astronauts extensively that could streamline the lengthy training process.

Scientists in the Man Vehicle Laboratory (MVL) administered standard cognitive spatial tests to 50 astronauts and compared the results with the astronauts' performance in NASA's 30-hour Generic Robotics Training (GRT) course. All incoming astronauts must complete this NASA training course to learn to operate the robotic arm on the International Space Station.

Results show the initial spatial tests may be used as a screening tool to place low-scores on an in-depth training track, while accelerating high-scorers through a shortened course.

“Astronaut training time is a precious resource, and we want to use it as efficiently as we can,” MVL director Charles Oman, who is a senior research engineer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, said in a statement. “We want to see if there is an objective way of picking people who may be stars, or identifying people who maybe shouldn’t be doing robotics.”

Using robots in space requires a lot of mental dexterity because there are few landmarks with which to orient an object. A zero-gravity environment also brings a set of scientific challenges that can cause spatial confusion.

“On Earth, we don’t have to remember what things look like upside down,” Oman says. “We don’t have to be able to turn the world over in our mind to remember which way to turn when we’re trying to follow a route.”

The team determined that the spatial skills involved in such robotic operation generally break down into two categories, including object rotation and perspective taking. They chose three pen-and-paper cognitive spatial tests and one computer-based test to gauge astronauts' skills in object rotation and spatial visualization.

“Even within the astronaut community, there was a distribution of how good their spatial abilities are, according to the tests we gave them,” says Andrew Liu, who administered the tests at NASA’s Astronaut Training Office in Houston and is co-author of the paper published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

Dan Burbank, chief of robotics and extravehicular activity at NASA’s Astronaut Office, said this training is critical for astronauts to experience prior to flight. Robotics training today is more intensive and time-consuming than back in the space shuttle era.

“A key requirement for safe robotics operations is for the arm operator to quickly and accurately synthesize multiple, disparate, remote camera views with often-counterintuitive telemetry cues and the occasional direct visual view,” Burbank said in a statement. “A suite of predictive evaluation tools that could identify a specific crewmember’s aptitude in synthesizing accurate 3-D mental models could help instructors tailor robotics training to that individual.”