Florida Tech’s Space Simulation Innovation

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Florida Institute of Technology’s modest Human Spaceflight Lab houses many tools to help director Ondrej Doule make advancements in the field of commercial spaceflight. But it is within a modest room in the lab that resides what may be greatest instrument for his endeavors.

Florida Tech, working with Sanford-based Servos & Simulation, Inc., has developed a 500-pound simulator that allows human subjects to experience the entire suborbital spaceflight profile – from takeoff through landing – using 360-degree motion and the hyperbaric environment of a spacesuit.

The simulator allows Doule and others to study human-system integration, including how a would-be passenger communicates and interacts with the ship’s onboard systems.  Furthermore, their findings could lead to changes in the way cockpits, flight decks and even rescue pods – a new and important facet of commercial spaceflight – are designed and used.

“We have designed the simulator to work with angles that we have determine are most functional for simulating takeoff and landing and, most importantly, for simulating microgravity,” Doule said.

And the simulator may also provide data for another project Doule and his teams are working on: helping to develop Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for commercial spaceflight.

The development of the simulator Florida Tech uses began four years ago with a modified, scaled-down version of Servos’ two-gimbal simulator that was originally created in the late 1990s. The company, working closely with Doule, provided proprietary control software for the simulator, and added a key component: a chair for the human subjects.

Doule then added the features required for the support of a spacesuit, and, most importantly, the screen and software interface for pilot communication and control.

The system is evolving to provide extremely useful information on spaceflight’s effects on humans. Test subjects range from experienced pilots to those without any flight experience, enhancing what Doule can learn from about spaceflight’s effects on humans and the efficacy of various methods of interaction.

“Designing and testing cabin systems for a pilot requires different simulator environment than for a spaceflight participant,” Doule said.

Analyzing information from previous spaceflight accidents, while working with the industry standards of providing minimum risk for passengers, the lab is assisting in providing the safest spacecraft possible.

“This is why we are starting with emergency scenarios and a configuration resembling an industrial safety pod,” Doule said. “It’s something that is fully autonomous in form of a small capsule that, from our perspective, should be part of every spaceship, so in case there is an accident, you as a spaceflight participant can safely return to Earth.”

Though Doule and his team have created a highly-functional system, they are always looking for ways to evolve the simulator. There are also future plans for the simulator to feature force feedback, dashboard deployment mechanisms, a new leg adjustment system to better simulate American or Russian space vehicles, and integration of more input devices. Florida Tech students are also working with design software, significantly contributing to the simulator.

In addition to gaining test information that will help provide FAA design guidelines and make commercial flights into space safer, Florida Tech’s simulator research will result in general guidance on how simulation machines are designed. Though the simulator being able to fit in the Human Spaceflight Lab’s office door was done out of necessity, the invention may help create future simulators that are easier to transport and set up.

“I think we are opening a completely new area of simulation of human spaceflight, because we don’t need parabolic flight or to pay $5,000 or $10,000 for this and we are approaching the general public,” Doule said.

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I write about research at Florida Tech. For any inquiries, contact me at 321-674-8937 or rrandall@fit.edu.

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