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