NASA Uses Students To Develop Virtual Reality Programs Scientists at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center are hoping to use virtual reality technology to study space, and Earth, without leaving their offices. Talented high school students are helping.
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NASA Taps Young People To Help Develop Virtual Reality Technology

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NASA Taps Young People To Help Develop Virtual Reality Technology

NASA Taps Young People To Help Develop Virtual Reality Technology

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NOEL KING, HOST:

NASA has high hopes for virtual reality and wants to use VR for everything - from geological research to fixing satellites. And to that end, they are tapping some new talent - high school students. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has the story.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Jackson Ames is a senior in Maryland, and one of his hobbies is video games.

JACKSON AMES: A lot of games that involve strategy and teamwork. One of my favorite ones is something called "Onward."

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HERSHER: Onward is a virtual reality war game. It's supposed to make players feel like they're soldiers fighting a battle. You play with a headset, headphones, a controller in each hand. And everything about it is hyper-realistic.

AMES: Yeah, it's much more realistic than anything else. It adds a whole new layer.

HERSHER: Ames is 17. He feels totally at home with virtual reality technology. He can't even remember a time when he didn't use computers. Armed with his love of VR and some actual coding skills from high school classes, Ames landed an internship over the summer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. And the guy who hired him is a NASA engineer named Thomas Grubb. Grubb used to play video games as a teenager back in the '80s. But there's just no time for that anymore. And he was really just looking for basic cheap labor to help out on some virtual reality projects.

THOMAS GRUBB: I went into this with, like, OK, I'll take a couple interns or whatever.

HERSHER: He thought he'd get a college student to help out with debugging and stuff. But when he posted the job...

GRUBB: I got all these amazing students coming back. And I was like, I want more than this. I ended up with five.

HERSHER: And they were super valuable because they understand what works and what doesn't in the virtual world. NASA has some pretty big ambitions for what it wants to do with VR - repair technicians in VR headsets on Earth fixing orbiting satellites in real time, scientists exploring remote locations from their offices. Like the inside of an ancient volcano - that's the program that I tried.

GRUBB: All right, so let's put - and it should fit snugly without being too tight.

HERSHER: I'm a little nervous about it honestly.

GRUBB: I think you'll be OK. But there is definitely some older...

HERSHER: Now, I'm 28. I'm not a technological dinosaur - at least not yet.

Here we go.

But honestly, I found the virtual lava tube highly alarming. At first, I felt like I couldn't move at all.

No, no, no. Wow.

Then when I finally did, I was just bumbling around in this virtual cave.

Here we are inside - rocks of the lava tube, the sky above.

The real cave is in Idaho. The virtual gray rocks look pixilated, but you still get dizzy looking up. The lava tube is really tall. I can kneel down and virtually measure boulders - at least theoretically, if I can get my body to move right.

This is a little weird.

How do gamers do it? When I asked Jackson Ames about it, he can barely cover up his impatience.

AMES: Well, it's just - I think that it's the future because we've been stuck with using 2-D screens for 30 years (laughter) or something like that.

HERSHER: And Grubb agrees. He thinks even if the technology has a learning curve, VR can definitely be helpful for research.

GRUBB: You know, it's cheaper to have people go to a lava tube in VR than to actually fly them out there for two weeks and everything else. All of these things can save a lot of money or time - or just enable new things.

HERSHER: In a few years, he hopes even the most seasoned NASA scientists will be strapping on virtual reality headsets at work.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

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