Sometime in the next year, astronauts-in-training will put on newly designed space suits, enter a low gravity chamber, and strap Oculus Rifts to their faces. For the first time ever, NASA will try to put together all the pieces necessary to make a person feel like they're truly on Mars, without ever leaving Houston.
Virtual reality has been a staple of astronaut training for a while now, but the pieces have never been fully put together to create a true space analogue. Instead, astronauts in training wear a spacesuit in a low gravity simulator that looks like it's, well, at the NASA Johnson Space Center, or pop on virtual reality goggles that makes it seem like they're walking on Mars while they're wearing gym shorts.
They'll be doing this in a new spacesuit designed specifically for Mars that has been in the works at the University of North Dakota (who partners with NASA on the project) for nearly a decade. The NDX-1 will, according to one of its creators, be the first fully-pressurized space suits to give astronauts the full space-on-Earth experience.
"We're going to test the suit in a harness and rig system that can replicate Mars' and the Moon's gravity," Pablo de Leon, who leads the project, told me at his laboratory in Grand Forks. "The astronaut will be feeling like he's walking on Mars inside of the helmet, and he'll be inside a pressurized suit. He'll see Mars and he'll feel, when he moves, the gravity of Mars."
That "harness and rig system" is NASA Johnson's ARGOS, which has been operational since 2012 and looks like this:
The NDX-1 has already been extensively tested in the North Dakota Badlands, the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, the Marambio base in Antarctica, and the Pilbara region in Australia, which, if you didn't know any better, look just like Mars. It's even been tested at a simulated 100 kilometers in the university's high altitude chamber, which de Leon says is good enough to tell whether or not it'll work in space.
The suit actually doesn't look like much in person—in fact, it looks and feels a lot like canvas. But de Leon handed me a piece of the fabric, a close cousin of Kevlar that's also made using carbon fibers, and asked me to tear it. I couldn't, obviously. I stabbed it with a screwdriver, with a pair of scissors. Nothing.
The suit is made out of a specialized blend of materials, de Leon says, in order to withstand the hard Martian rocks and dust that would probably rip through traditional space suits.
NASA, for its part, has been testing a few new types of space suits, among them the NDX-1 (what you see here is the inner layer, a pressure suit goes on top of it).
Scientists at NASA's virtual reality laboratory at the Johnson Space Center didn't respond to repeated attempts by me to learn more about the project, but de Leon says that full virtual reality testing is expected to happen sometime next year.
"The software we use will replicate what you'd really be doing on space," de Leon said. "It'll be like you're there."