Going Blind on a Spacewalk. Can Simulation Training Help?

Spacewalking outside the Shuttle. Image via Pixbay

Imagine you’ve made it to the International Space Station (ISS), left the ship on your spacewalk, then you go blind. What do you do?

This is a guest post from my friend Sam Williams (@SamW112358 on Twitter). It’s Sam’s first post and is a prelude to him launching his own blog. Hopefully you enjoy it, if you do, please leave a comment for Sam.

The content has been prompted by my recent post – Do Epidemiologists Play COVID-19 Computer Games After Work? Sam and I talk about this sort of thing a lot – and he’s got plenty of interesting things to share…

Playing Computer Games After Work. Chris’ latest blog on gaming and simulations really got me thinking, as they are prone to do. In the post he poses 2 questions that I’m going to respond to

  1. Does playing a computer game help with your job? (Epidemiologists included); and
  2. Can the data generated by playing these games help create wider insight and learning?

Job Simulation is an Old Idea. The idea of simulating things isn’t new. Back in 1969 the Apollo 11 crew calculated that they collectively spent 2,000 hours in simulators. This was in just 6 months between their selection in January and their flight in July. The details can be found in this NASA article [link to article].

That’s an impressive number of hours in simulators. A bit of rough math for 3 people, building up 2,000 hours over 6 months, puts it at about 27 hours a week each. Just to put that in context, a recent survey, The State of Online Gaming 2002, identifies that gamers spent just over 6 hours a week playing games. For commitment, the average modern gamer doesn’t match the 1960’s Astronaut’s simulation time!

Another interesting finding from the study is the claim that people aged 18-25 spend more time watching other people play computer games than they do watching sport. Think about that for a moment.

As someone who plays games, I find watching players who are better than me fascinating. Some of my best learning has come through watching great players run through their thought processes. This could potentially be an interesting by-product of using simulators; learning by watching others play the simulation.

No More Tears… This is a nice example around the use of simulations which also centres around space travel, and is the source of the title of this blog.

Imagine you’ve made it to the International Space Station (ISS), left the ship on your spacewalk, then you go blind. Chris Hadfield recounts a brilliant story of his first space walk where he temporarily went blind.

Hadfield mulls over the situation in several interviews, including this excellent Ted Talk.

If you haven’t watched it, I’ll recount it quickly. On his first spacewalk Chris Hadfield got detergent in his eye. This is the material used to keep the inside of his helmet from fogging up, and its not something you want in your eye. The result, his eye “slammed shut”. As his eye started tearing up the water stuck to his face rather than running anywhere because of surface tension and the lack of sufficient gravity. He couldn’t just pop his helmet off and give his eye a wipe. Eventually the tears cross the bridge of his nose and totally blind him. Have a look at the video for the ‘matter of fact’ description of this.

One of my favourite lines is Hadfield saying “…it could be a pretty terrifying moment if you weren’t ready for it…”.

He describes how they had “done the training, all the visualisations they could think of”. In over 400 hours in underwater simulators, they had practiced incapacitation scenarios so, “when I went blind it wasn’t so bad, I can still talk and hear”.

Staying calm in the situation was vital, and the simulations had prepared him. Although this situation was unique, he had things to work from. Hadfield describes that even in the worse case he could just get dragged back inside the ISS. From first having issues, to getting back to the task in hand, took about half hour. The solution they came up with was opening a valve and spurting some oxygen & tears into space.

You could ask, why didn’t the simulation come up with this?

This is a great question. I don’t know enough about the science to say with certainty why this scenario never got tested (being a weightless simulator rather than reduced gravity would be my best stab). Using what Hadfield had, the ability to hear and talk, demonstrates some of the value in simulation. It creating a level of familiarity. Hadfield does joke that after that incident the Astronauts used Johnson’s ‘No More Tears’ as the anti-fog detergent of choice. With the benefit of hindsight they should have used it before!

This example does demonstrate the limitation of the simulation. You can’t simulate every possibility. However, they had worked with similar problems before. Hadfield was prepared. He stayed calm, used what he had available (talking/hearing) and worked out a fix for the new problem.

So to answer Question 1. Does playing computer games make you better at your job? If the game is a simulation exercise, or something similar, I think the answer is yes. It helps to prepare you for unknown situations and problems.

I’m not going to answer Question 2 at the moment, I’m saving that for the launch of my blog. What I will say though is that it involves more space travel. This time Apollo 12, more about simulations and the famous “SCE to AUX command”.

Just to sum things up so far.

  • 2,000 hours of simulation training in 6 months is intensive. But, travelling to the moon is complicated! You need to be prepared to cope with unexpected situations rather than just having one plan.
  • 18-25 year olds spend lots of time time watching people play computer games. Is this becoming increasingly part of how people learn?
  • If simulations can help someone who goes blind in space, how could it help in more earthly situations?

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

2 Responses

  1. OMG! I give ‘almost’ exactly the same talk as Chris (I dance not sing) about trying to buy my wife a Birthday Present. The fear and danger equation is very similar, so I resorted to a posh bag, I’m good at bags, it’s my cotton bud.

    Seriously, simulation is the most productive way of taking people into places they haven’t experienced, to try and keep doing the ordinary things that they do. This is called Preparation, not Planning. It is the discipline, of learning how to work in the Simplicity Beyond Complexity https://complexwales.com/2020/03/22/beyond-complexity/

    Great blog Sam, go for personal blogger on wordpress and get samilliams.com registered HaHa.

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