NASA Astronauts, Hollywood Team Up for Virtual Reality Shoot Aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey and two Oscar winners took part in the unprecedented shoot.
Chuck Null
NASA astronaut Dan Bursch (left) with Oculus founder Palmer Luckey on a VR shoot inside Space Shuttle Endeavour.

As the Space Shuttle fuel tank was being prepared for its move through the streets of Los Angeles, NASA astronauts in town for the occasion joined members of the Hollywood and Silicon Valley communities — including Oculus’ 23-year-old founder Palmer Luckey and two Academy Award winners — for an unprecedented virtual reality shoot aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center in Exposition Park.

The VR shoot included interiors of Endeavour’s flight deck and the Spacehab module as well as NASA astronauts — including Dan Bursch, Drew Feustel, Michael Finke, Kenneth Ham, Kay Hire, Sandra Magnus and Steven Swanson — who simulated in orbit procedures as though Endeavour was in flight.

Additionally, they were interviewed with 4K 2D cameras about the Shuttle and reminisced about their experiences in space. The VR and 2D cameras were also used to film some of the fuel tank's move through the streets.

The VR material will have a range of uses, some of which are still being worked out. Initially some footage is expected to be available as experiences for those with VR headsets at home and in classrooms. Some of the material also will become part of the exhibits at the soon-to-be built Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center, a $250 million facility slated to open in 2018, that will house Endeavour, the ET-94 fuel tank and rocket boosters in launch configuration — the only such exhibit in the world. The filmed interviews will be exclusively used by the the California Science Center for exhibits and other uses.

"The number one question we’re asked is, ‘what does space feel like?’ The idea behind the shoot is to create a product where people can have a VR experience in the orbiter,” said Ken Phillips, curator for aerospace sciences at the California Science. Center.

The shoot itself was a thrill for space enthusiasts such as VR rock star Luckey, and emotional for the astronauts themselves. “Incredible! It's hard to express,” Luckey enthused, trying to find words to describe the feeling of being inside Endeavour, taking one last selfie as he exited the orbiter.

Hire, who flew one of her missions in Endeavour, said, “It's very nostalgic; this was our transportation, our home and the accomplishment of thousands of people. I really hope this inspires students and sparks their imaginations. We trained with [a different type of] VR. This is such a phenomenal educational opportunity.”

Added Ham: “I honestly never thought I'd ever get in the Space Shuttle again — it was a treat of treats. There were some bittersweet moments. A bunch of us retired folks were hanging out, recalling the procedures and which buttons to push. It comes back.”

Admitted Fincke, who flew Endeavour's final mission: "When I climbed up to the flight deck, I got goose bumps. [During the interview portion of the shoot] we told some stories about maneuvering the Space Shuttle or using the arm to take something out of the payload bay. Those were big deals; those were us accomplishing our missions. [We also talked about lighter moments such as] the time the commander played a prank ... some of the fun, inside stories we could share. It's a nice reminder of what human beings did when they built this beautiful spacecraft."

Adding to the energy level during the shoot was the presence of many children from multiple class trips, who excitedly asked questions and posed for pictures with the astronauts. "The hope is to get [kids] excited about space and the future. With VR, we can put everyone in the Shuttle," Luckey said. "I'm a huge space enthusiast. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid, before realizing my poor vision and large stature made it unlikely that I’d be picked. But I remain very interested in space."

The pro-bono shoot was part of a larger effort to document the arrival and impact of Endeavour, with continued involvement from a core team that includes VFX Academy Award winners Ben Grossmann and Alex Henning (Hugo), who are co-founders of the experiential design company Magnopus; Melissa Eccles, VR experience producer for Game of Thrones; and David Knight, California Science Center trustee and founder of tech startup Terbine.

This time, the effort expanded to include involvement from Oculus, represented by Oculus Future Media’s Amaresh Kollipara; and Nokia, which provided two of its OZO 3D VR cameras for the production.

Other companies that donated gear for the shoot were Sony, which provided 4K cameras; and Quixote Studios, whose Star Verde vehicle followed the fuel tank to provide a base for the crew (several astronauts and former L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti also used it for a break during the trip.)

Once the fuel tank and Endeavour are in the permanent exhibit, "the Shuttle will not be accessible, so we're trying to capture it in its present state while the astronauts are in town," said VFX pro Henning of the shoot. "There's a ton of information that we don't have that's out there in space. Anything that I can do to [help direct kids' attention to this], volunteer or otherwise, is a privilege."

Oculus brought along its Rift headset and prototype Touch hand controller. "We're focused on getting as many Rifts out there as possible," said Luckey. "It's going to take a while for everyone to use it. But already, a lot of people are excited. It's a matter of getting cheaper headsets, better technology and more content. That’s inevitable."

After trying the Rift, astronaut Fincke — sounding very much like he's ready to direct — said, "It's about telling the story. Having VR and being able to have people at home and in schools see what we've seen and feel what we felt is going to be very powerful. It’s going to help inspire the next generation of explorers.”

Added Ham: "The experience of being in space is magnificent and astronauts will also tell you it's indescribable. There no way to showing it in a video or talking about it in way consumable for folks on the ground. But what I just saw on the VR goggles is so similar to the real experience, it will be captivating.”

Ham complimented the motion picture industry for helping to raise awareness of what’s happening the space program, though he admitted that accuracy has varied by story. “[The storyline in] The Martian was fairly well crafted," he said, adding, "the visual imagery in Gravity was pretty darn close; I saw it in 3D Imax. But the physics involved in that story, and I hope I don’t offend anyone, were atrocious. What I didn’t like about that message in Gravity was that everything that was in space ends up crashing. You don’t want people to think space travel is dangerous. It has its elements of danger, but as a race, we are going to be doing it forever, and I’d like people to think that it is safe.”

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