This week, I got to indulge my inner child and try out Alton Towers’ Galactica VR roller coaster ahead of opening. I enjoyed it, though there’s plenty of room for improvement too. Also checking out the theme park’s big new attraction was none other than retired, now-celebrity, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.
We chatted about virtual reality, space and a certain song reimagined on the International Space Station.
Improving NASA's Training Facilities
“I've used VR to train for most of my adult life,” he says, a couple of moments after almost crushing my fingers in a handshake.
“As a fighter pilot, we have VR inside domes, where I'd be sitting inside a cockpit and it would be as if I was flying an F-18. But the trouble is, you're not moving. The seat’s just sitting there. They would actually make the seat hard and soft underneath you to try and give you some sort of visceral clues that you were actually moving, but you weren't, so you had to integrate it in your mind.
“When training for spacewalks, we have full visuals and gloves, so it looks like you’re moving around the outside of the ship. But again, you’re just sitting in a chair in a room. It's a good training facility, but you recognise that it’s not right. You have to make a mental leap to make up for the difference between simulation and reality. It's the same for launching a rocket. You get the visuals on the screens, the simulation shakes and makes noises at the appropriate moments, but you don't get the sustained acceleration. You don't get the real visceral feel of it.”
I imagine Hadfield tutting and shaking his head as swarms of suits and scientists urge him to show more enthusiasm for their creations.
“[The systems] are all by their own design quite limited," he continues, thankfully oblivious to the images whirling around in my mind. "The job of the astronaut then becomes disregarding all the things that are wrong and trying to pay attention to the things that are sort of right, so you can learn the lessons you need to learn. It's a useful tool but it's inherently inaccurate. This is a generation beyond that, and it will be interesting to see what type of machinery we build to train our fighter pilots and test pilots and astronauts in the future.
“It could be based on this sort of idea, where you get the multi-access accelerations and the motions and the full body training, not just the theoretical or the hypothetical or the visual. We have centrifuges, but no astronaut has ever trained on a roller coaster before. There's definitely ways that you could integrate this that would really be a good preparation for actual flight.”
Imagine that. NASA actually taking tips off Alton Towers for training the next generation of astronauts. It sounds like a completely bonkers idea, but I’m not going to question Hadfield’s authority.
Peake the Poser?
Our conversation turns to Tim Peake’s exploits aboard the ISS. The British astronaut seems to have triggered renewed interest in space exploration amongst the UK public, almost solely through the updates on his Twitter account. Should the guy cool it on the social media front before we start comparing him to [insert name of vain, snap-happy Twitter celeb here]?
“Space flight hasn't changed at all,” says Hadfield. “Our ability to communicate has radically improved. I think people on the ground get a very false impression, in that they see Tim Peake doing things on board and they think that's all he's doing. Up there, he's running 200 experiments, helping maintain the ship and exercising for two hours a day. And somewhere in there, he manages to share a little bit of it with other people. I think the sharing is important. It starts to influence the decisions of millions of young people around the world."
It's at this moment that I begin to feel like the sub-standard human I truly am. I love exercise, but definitely don't work out for two hours a day, I probably wouldn't even be able to read a single one of those calculations, and the phrase 'I'm not totally useless; I can be used as a bad example' definitely applies to me too. On top of that, my Twitter feed's confused and uninteresting. I hate Tim Peake.
“I was an astronaut for 21 years and have seen the generational impact of that. It's important, but I sure would have loved to have been on board with the Apollo astronauts when they landed on the moon. I wish we'd had VR then, or even decent YouTube or social media capabilities, because it would have helped me to more clearly understand the possibilities and the rewards that come from space exploration.
“Social media doesn't really change life for the astronauts. We're still doing our jobs, but I think it allows other people to get a better sense of what's going on.”
Right now, that appears to be trying to work out how long humans would be able to live in space for, without suffering unfortunate side effects, such as blindness or radiation poisoning. Hadfield reckons we’re making excellent progress, and says it’ll only be a matter of time before space travel becomes just another aspect of human culture.
“We've transitioned from early probing and first glimpses of things to actually living in space. That's different. It's the next natural phase of exploring the universe. That changes how you can share it with other people too. It stops being just a Herculean effort to do something, and starts to become cultural.
"As a species, we've been living permanently in space for over 15 years. That starts to have a cultural impact. It starts to become part of normal humanity. This is one of the things that people do. And our culture starts to evolve, with that being part of it. A new place and a new environment changes our culture."
It's an extraordinary idea, but it makes complete sense too. Take The Big Bang Theory. The sitcom's character Howard Wolowitz was transformed into a self-obsessed monster on his return to earth from the ISS, with the show very much playing on the human aspect of space exploration. You could also argue that Star Wars and Star Trek have never been more popular than they are today.
“We're on the cusp of that in leaving the planet. It's no longer just a case of going and coming back to see if we can do it, but actually a place where people can live. That's part of what Tim is trying to show. There's not very many of us [up there] yet, and it's still new, but there is a door opening. 20 or 30 years from now, when people are living on the moon, they’re going to have a different culture. And it will evolve.”
Slowly realising exactly what I’m saying as the words tumble out of my mouth, I ask Hadfield if, a couple of decades down the line, he’d accept an offer to live on the moon with his family and loved ones.
“Oh absolutely. Sure. I would love to go. I would love to be able to fly in space again. And I would love to be able to bring people along directly with me. But, of course, we don't just go for rides. It's very much the fruit of years and years of work, and that's also what makes it more interesting.”
I can't allow him to get away without any mention of the great David Bowie, who of course passed away at the start of the year. Hadfield recorded his own version of Space Oddity on the ISS, which Bowie himself described it as "possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created." YouTube pulled the cover due to licensing issues, but Hadfield has worked hard to extend the copyright agreement, keeping the clip above on the site until at least November.
“Space Oddity is Bowie's best guess in 1968 about what space flight might be like," he tells me with a smile on his face. "I love Oddity, and the fact that through reinterpreting it as I did, it delighted him. To have got to know him just a little bit and to have made him be involuntarily happy, I was really, really delighted. It’s a lovely space song and I’m glad I know how to play it.”