This week, a NASA astronaut will ‘test drive’ a new ‘virtual glovebox,’ performing simple scientific manipulations in simulated microgravity.

NASA scientists at the Biological Visualization, Imaging and Simulation Technology Center (BioVIS Center) created the glovebox as a virtual reality training environment prototype. It simulates the life sciences glovebox facility, an enclosed, reach-in environment where astronauts can safely perform biological research aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

“The virtual glovebox has great potential for experimental and tool designs and to augment crew training,” said physician Dr. Yvonne Cagle, astronaut and liaison for life sciences research on the ISS from the Astronaut Office at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston. Cagle is on assignment as the astronaut liaison at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. One of her duties at NASA Ames, to test the virtual glovebox, will provide critical input about the realism and usability of this new simulated training system.

“As an astronaut, I serve as the end-user for the virtual glovebox. My role is to provide input and evaluate the realism and feasibility of this technology to function as a tool to enhance crew training,” Cagle said. She also will participate in gravitational biology research and space hardware development efforts ongoing at NASA Ames.

The virtual glovebox will combine a three-dimensional display and workstation with force-feedback devices and real-time computer simulation. It will give astronauts a realistic training session for biology research tasks they may perform aboard the space station. Astronauts will wear specially polarized 3-D glasses, stand in front of the unit with their hands inside a glovebox volume simulator, and watch a display screen on top of the unit as if they were peering into the actual glovebox. Cybergloves track hand movements, relaying the information to the computer so astronauts see their ‘virtual hands’ on the screen performing an experiment in real time. An astronaut can pick up a force-feedback device that looks like a small wand attached to an arm. This will tell the astronaut when the virtual hand encounters an object or hard surface by providing resistance.

“The advantage of a virtual reality tool is that you can simulate microgravity,” said Dr. Jeff Smith, deputy director of the BioVIS Technology Center. “For biological research, that means using fluids that float away, securing all objects, and using small forces and fine motor control when performing experiments. We hope to provide cues to astronauts to give them insight to what it would be like to do experiments in space.”

Cagle will perform two simple experimental scenarios in the virtual glovebox and provide feedback to its creators. First, she will prepare a microscope slide of a liquid sample such as blood or cell culture. Then she will view the slide through a virtual microscope and photograph it. In the second scenario, Cagle will practice pollinating a plant by hand, a procedure requiring tiny manipulations critical for plant research in space.

“We’re very fortunate to have someone in the astronaut corps to evaluate our system at NASA Ames and provide us input to enhance its usefulness,” said Chris Maese, Space Station Biological Research Project operations lead. “Crew time is valuable both in flight and on the ground. Developing a training tool that can complement our existing training methodologies and perhaps one that can be used on board the ISS will strengthen our ability to effectively train future crews.”

Maese has coordinated the ground training of astronaut crews for life sciences research using a glovebox that flew on four Spacelab missions. Maese and Smith hope the virtual glovebox will give both astronauts and scientists who develop the experiments a glimpse of the challenges of biological research in space. They have designed a desktop PC version of the virtual glovebox along with the workstation so that in the future, a scientist who designed an experiment could be linked up with a crew member training at a virtual glovebox. 

“Investigators at a university could get a feel for it themselves and make suggestions to the astronaut training in the high-fidelity system. In a networked simulation, the investigator could walk the astronaut through the experiment,” Smith explained. “A laptop version also could serve as a portable trainer for astronauts to get a refresher or make a last-minute change in a procedure before attempting the real experiment.”

Smith says virtual reality training for astronauts offers other advantages beyond the obvious advantage of simulated microgravity. The virtual environment lets astronauts deal with dangerous scenarios or hazardous chemicals without risk so they can practice a variety of emergency or clean-up procedures quickly and easily. Virtual reality training also allows scientists to make procedural changes that astronauts can easily try out.

“The virtual glovebox can allow us, as astronauts, to safely train on specimen handling by practicing in a simulated microgravity virtual environment that can actually track and display where objects, liquids and even gases may travel in a weightless environment,” said Cagle.

“You can rearrange the environment at the click of a button,” Smith said. “Biology experimentation in space can be hazardous if not done correctly. Making even a tiny mistake can be critical to the investigator’s research, and could be very costly. We need to make sure it’s done right. The virtual glovebox will give astronauts so much more knowledge than if they just read a briefing or a manual.”

To learn more about NASA Ames’ BioVIS Center and get an image of the virtual glovebox, visit the Web site at:

Additional information about the Space Station Biological Research Project at Ames, go to:                          

Life sciences research at NASA Ames is supported by NASA’s Office of Biological and Physical Research, which promotes basic and applied research to support human exploration of space and to take advantage of the space environment as a laboratory. More information is available at: