NASA is testing iPads and PowerPoint to train astronauts to handle disasters

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Technical problems that are mere inconveniences on earth can be catastrophic in outer space. To help plan for all kinds of possible problems in space, including equipment failures, NASA is using Apple iPads and Microsoft PowerPoint presentations in special undersea research missions.

NASA is working toward future deep space missions that could one day take astronauts to explore Mars or an asteroid. But NASA would never be able to train a crew for every unforeseen possibility that comes up, Marc Reagan of NASA's analog training office, told CITEworld. "So that means we'll need to create what we call 'just-in-time' training, to help astronauts prepare for something they never expected before."

That's where the experiments with iPads and PowerPoint presentations fit in. Astronauts of the future could view emergency procedures on a screen right in their hands without having to rely on constant communications with personnel on Earth.

"Certainly in the back of my mind was Apollo 13," when NASA workers had to develop seat-of-the-pants fixes for a wide range of technical problems arose in quick succession as they worked to get the three-man crew home safely in April 1970, said Reagan. "That was an extreme case and hopefully a once-in-a generation kind of thing that happened."

During Apollo 13, an oxygen tank on the spacecraft exploded and threw the whole mission into danger. NASA workers quickly had to develop system repair procedures on Earth and then tell the astronauts on Apollo 13 how to replicate the repairs in space. The step-by-step directions, such as tearing off a two-foot piece of duct tape and using a binder cover to build a needed tool, had to be radioed to the crew step-by-step, despite sometimes spotty radio communications.

"Today we can do something so much better," said Reagan.  

The underseas work is being done as part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project, or NEEMO, said Reagan, who is the mission's director. The astronauts, engineers, and scientists do their work and live for up to three weeks at a time inside Aquarius, an undersea research station that sits 62 feet below the ocean's surface about 3 miles from Key Largo. The idea is that by working underwater in Aquarius, astronauts and others can replicate some of the conditions of being in space, including the isolation and physical conditions of being in a hostile environment.

As part of NEEMO, NASA has developed right-now procedures for teaching crew members Aquarius how to do some basic maintenance jobs on the craft. By presenting such procedures in a visual presentation, with pictures and colorful circles and other explanatory marks, it was very easy to communicate the required steps.

"With a combination of text and pictures and video, you could put something together to do something no one has done before" in space, said Reagan. 

One problem that had to be overcome immediately, though, was that the iPads weren't designed to run and display PowerPoint presentations natively. To do that, NASA brought in SlideShark, a mobile app from BrainShark that lets users display and use PowerPoint files easily, including embedded videos, audio, and other features, said Reagan. The product was tested about 18 months ago after Reagan did some research to find an answer to the iPad/PowerPoint incompatibility issue.

"For me it was a simple thing, just make a PowerPoint presentation and then put it on an iPad, but it wasn’t a simple thing" until SlideShark was brought in, he said. "My idea was that you really need to be able to take all the text, slides, video and everything and put it on an iPad because the astronauts carry it all day long as a prime tool."

The combination of iPads and SlideShark were used for the first time in the NEEMO 16 mission last year and in another underwater mission this past September, according to Reagan.  Both trials were a success.

"I'm envisioning that when crews get far away from Earth and if things crop up, like in an Apollo 13 situation," that helping and saving crew members in an emergency will come down to how NASA's ground crew can develop special repair and survival procedures and get them quickly beamed up to astronauts in space, he said. "And it's not just about tomorrow. We have the International Space Station in space today."

It's conceivable that future space travelers could carry what would essentially be a "known procedure library" filled with thousands of files that would outline basic instructions for a wide variety of scenarios in space.  "Because it's so easy to understand a procedure being delivered in something that looks like a PowerPoint presentation, which everyone is familiar with, and because it's so relatively easy to build something in PowerPoint, that's how we ended up there."

So far, the astronauts who have used the system liked being able to see all the procedures, timelines, and illustrations at one time, he said. They also liked receiving all of their email and other communications on the same devices.

But when things go awry or are outside the already loaded procedures in such an on-board library, that's where the NASA staff could then compose a custom PowerPoint presentation with repair procedures and video and then upload it to the crew at once, said Reagan. "And, conceivably, it could look like a PowerPoint presentation, and be delivered on an iPad."

All of these issues are still being reviewed and tested through the undersea NEEMO missions, which make things easier because while simulating space conditions, they can be done right here on Earth, said Reagan.

"It's not rocket science – but it is a big step toward using today's technological capabilities in a way that they are not fully being used today."

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