Every piece of technology that enters space not only has to meet high standards of reliability and protect the safety of crew members, but has to be engineered to withstand extreme environments. Astronauts are dependent on human-rated technology for mission success, particularly those living on the International Space Station or for future deep space missions.
This is where NEEMO comes in. During NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), scientists, engineers and astronauts—or aquanauts—have the ocean as a counterpart for space, using the weightless environment to train, test equipment and perform experiments. Ultimately, the goal is to deploy these technologies in space. NEEMO 23 is the first step to ensure that these technologies become space certified for mission success.
The NEEMO 23 expedition begins in June with three Draper engineers participating in mission control activities in Islamorada, Florida. Yes, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
Draper has two technologies that will be introduced and tested during NEEMO 23: a position and orientation wearable kinematics device—think of an astronaut tracking system--and a lunar landing flight simulator. Both are designed to improve life, efficiency and astronaut performance in space, whether on the International Space Station or for future exploration on the moon or Mars.
“What’s the actual living space that an astronaut needs? How should that space be designed? What should it look like? The wearable kinematic will provide data to help us answer these questions.” - Kevin Duda
Initially, the lunar landing simulator was created for flight control analysis, but now aims to analyze flight performance. During NEEMO 23, the aquanauts will use the simulator once a day at various allotted time segments, for fifteen minutes before and after certain activities. Their simulated flight performance will yield invaluable data and show the effects of levels of fatigue and awareness. This data is invaluable information for life in space when payload arrivals on the International Space Station can come at any time of the day or night for the astronauts.
Like most Draper programs, both technologies being tested during NEEMO 23 are the result of long, interdisciplinary collaboration. Principal Investigator Kevin Duda leveraged half a dozen other Draper projects from the last decade to design the tracking system & simulator. The technology is a nod to Draper’s extensive heritage in inertial navigation and space exploration, including the famed Apollo 11 moon landing. The wearable uses vision-aided navigation and a software called SAMWISE. Ted Steiner is the lead for SAMWISE, which was created both for the NEEMO wearable and high-speed quadcopters that can navigate autonomously at up to 45 MPH.
"Trust is important, especially when talking about autonomous systems." - Tristan Endsley
For Tristan Endsley, NEEMO 23 has given her the opportunity to apply her expertise in human-machine teaming to Draper’s work in navigation. Before the success of the Apollo program, many were skeptical about trusting a digital spaceflight computer with the lives of astronauts and mission success. Today, in a world where artificial intelligence lives in the smart devices of most homes, there is a different mistrust that stems from a concern for privacy rather than reliability. While the wearable tracking system uses vision-aided navigation made up of sensors and a camera, the only output is the position and orientation of the astronaut--there is never image data. For Tristan, who is most concerned with the human-machine relationship, the astronauts' privacy is paramount to building trust.
Ensuring trust in human-machine teaming is especially important for future technological innovation.
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