NASA Podcasts

NASA 360 - Season 1, Show 7
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IN THIS EPISODE (in order of appearance):


[upbeat electronic music]

Johnny: Let's face it. Without brains, our bodies wouldn't know what to do. And more than ever, we let technology do the thinking for us.

(female electronic voice) Please drive to highlighted route. Thanks.

Jennifer: Yeah, I mean, I don't know what I would do without modern technology. But without me, would a machine be just a hunk of metal? Or are brains, bodies, and machines inextricably linked?

I'm Jennifer Pulley.

Johnny: And I'm Johnny Alonso. On this episode of NASA 360, we're gonna explore the connection between the body, the mind, and machine... From tools we'll use for future space travel built to think like us and even look like us.

Jennifer: to very real applications we need right now, right here on Earth. But first, mind and machine merge in the virtual reality of the international space station.

Johnny: Can you imagine what it'd be like doing a spacewalk? What goes on through your mind the second you dip out of the craft and into the vastness in space? Awe? Fear? Total amazement?

Yeah, definitely all of the above. But how do astronauts prepare for such an experience like that? Well, follow me. Well, for one thing, they swap stories. But they also pay a visit to this guy, Dave Homan, here at the virtual reality lab at Johnson Space Center. How are you?

Dave: Good. How you doing?

Johnny: Good. Good to see you. Glad to see you. So astronauts do some training here, right?

Dave: They do their training here. This is a virtual reality facility. We can assemble the actual space station orbiter configuration as it would actually be in space.

Johnny: Can we give it a test spin?

Dave: Sure thing.

Johnny: Let's go.

Dave: Right in there.

Johnny: Right on. That's gonna be me, right? I wish it was an amazing black. I'm so gonna throw up.

Dave Homan: we just shampooed the carpets last night.

[Alonso chuckles]

Dave Homan: this is essentially where the astronauts come to work their protocol and procedures with -- between E.V.A. crew members and the robotic arm operators so that it becomes like second nature to them.

This is a place where they can actually work out those protocols on the ground before they get into space and so that it's familiar to them and it's not a surprise when they get on orbit.

Johnny: you know, I can totally see how this would help astronauts. Thanks, Dave.

Dave: Sure thing.

Dave: You ready to get out?

Johnny: Absolutely. Okay. Look, whether you're aware of it or not, our brain is constantly responding to stimulus. I mean, thanks to our various senses, like our eyes, our ears. You get the picture. But when that stimulus is coming from a machine, does our brain respond the same way?

Well, my good friend Jennifer Pulley at NASA Langley Research Center is taking a closer look at planes and pilots to see how they work together to take flight.

[jet engines roaring]

[upbeat rock music]

Jennifer: One of the finest examples in history of how humans have used their minds to build machines to take their body places is aviation. Now, the technology aboard planes has come a long way, of course. Cockpits are digital, and they're more automated than ever, but is it possible to have too much of a good thing?

[knocking] Let's find out.

Lynda Kramer: This is a 757 cockpit. You have all the head-down information you would typically have. We have something here called a head-up display that I'm gonna show you if you'd like. If you'd like to fly, I can show you a new technology we've been working on.

Jennifer: Would I like to fly? Would I like to fly? Yes. is there a clutch?

Lynda Kramer: Uh...not quite.

[both laughing]

Lynda Kramer: Okay, well, I'm gonna go ahead and put the sim into operate.

Jennifer: You know, this reminds me of, like, driving a car, you know, same deal. You've got your speedometer, the outside. But I--I don't have all these instruments on my car. How do pilots not get overwhelmed and take all this in?

Lynda Kramer: That is a great question. The testing we do in here is, we're looking at the best way to present information to a pilot. We want to do that so he maintains his situational awareness, so you remember there's a mountain out there. You remember which runway you're landing on, 16 right at Reno, not 16 left. And by doing that, we want to increase their situational awareness, but we also want to make sure their mental workload doesn't get so out of hand that it's overwhelming to fly.

Jennifer:So what I hear you saying is, you're looking at sort of a combination between protocol, aesthetics -- what you see -- and psychology.

Lynda Kramer: That's exactly right. We're looking how humans best deal with information, how to best present that to them and where to put it, and it's everything from visual to controls.

Jennifer:Sounds like it's a never a dull moment for the pilots.

Lynda Kramer: Probably not. But you know what? On a long flight -- like a long en route flight from, say, Paris to New York at nighttime when you really probably want to be sleeping -- pilots, they keep all the information there, but they could become complacent. Not bored or anything like that, but there's technologies that you can look at. In fact, Dr. Alan Pope here at NASA Langley has been looking at brain wave technology in simulators to be able to determine when a pilot might be becoming complacent.

Jennifer: Lynda, I will be sure to talk to him. Thank you so much for your time.

Lynda Kramer: You are so welcome. Thank you for coming.

Jennifer:And letting me fly, ah.

Lynda Kramer: You did a great job.

Jennifer:I appreciate that. All right, up next, Johnny Alonso's down in Houston, Texas, and he's going to be looking at another NASA study designed to help pilots prepare for situations where they need to be 100 percent, especially when their minds and bodies aren't cooperating, ugh.

Johnny: One very serious hazard for pilots is that moment when your eyes, your body, and the seat of your pants are telling you something completely different than what your plane is telling you. I mean, you can get thrown off, especially when you need to make a crucial decision, like when you're landing. Can we train the mind and body to work together to handle these intense situations?

[knocking] Maybe Dr. Scott Wood can tell us.

Dr. Wood: Come on in.

Johnny: Doctor, how you doin'?

Dr. Wood: Hey, good to see you.

Johnny: So tell me, what do you do here to keep these astronauts cool?

Dr. Wood: Well, you know, we're just getting ready to start a study. Why don't we show you in the next room.

Johnny: Let's go. Let's go.

Johnny: so what do we have here?

Dr. Wood: What we have here is a motion simulator that we've used with pilots and some of our returning astronauts, so it's creating some of the confusing, challenging sensory conditions that pilots experience.

All right. And what we're really excited about is some of the new sensory aids that we've been looking at. Actually, this has been developed through some research in the Navy.

And the point is, sometimes when you're in these challenging situations, it's not that we don't have enough information for the pilot in the displays. Sometimes it's just grabbing their attention, having them pay attention to it, and that's the point of these tactors. So these are small little pager motors that are right here, and what they do is, they vibrate.

Johnny: So wait. Let me clarify something. These are sensors, so I mean, when it's strapped on the body, if the pilot has to go right, they will feel, like, a vibration on the right side of the body.

Dr. Wood: That's correct. Yeah, that's their feedback. It's kind of like a tap on the shoulder just to get their attention and let them know what direction they need to correct.

Johnny: Very cool, and you said you have Julie helping us out today?

Dr. Wood: Yeah, so Julie's gonna wear these and get in our motion simulator.

Johnny: You're braver than I am, I'll tell you that.

Dr. Wood: Okay, Julie, now we're gonna try that with the tactor feedback.

Johnny: So what are you having her do, doc?

Dr. Wood: We're having her control her position so as the computer moves the chair off-axis, she's trying to keep herself centered, similar to a pilot trying to keep their aircraft hovering in the same position.

Johnny: I am so glad that's not me. Look, don't go anywhere. When NASA 360 returns, we're gonna take a closer look at your brain.

Johnny: Ever notice that anytime you're thrown off-balance... The first thing you want to do is to get some solid footing? Well, your feet know where to go because you know which way is up, and you know which way is down. You can do that because of something called the vestibular system.

Now, that's the system that sends signals from the inner ears to the eyes to the muscles that keep us upright. Most of the time, the vestibular system does its thing without us ever having to consciously think about it.

But guess what? In space, in the freefall of microgravity, huh, there is no up, and there is no down. And that throws the vestibular system way off. In fact, it makes some people physically ill.

It's a little something the folks here at NASA call space motion sickness, but researchers think, with a little training, astronauts can actually use their minds to overcome their body's desire to, well, you know...

Johnny: It's true. Space motion sickness causes problems, but NASA's now working on additional training for astronauts before they fly, and this is where that'll happen. This is Deborah Harm, and she's working on ways to prevent space motion sickness. How are you?

Deborah: Good! How are you?

Johnny:Good. Good to see you.

Deborah: Nice to meet you.

Johnny: My pleasure. What do you call this thing? [eerie music]

Deborah Harm: its official name is D.O.M.E., which is an acronym for Device for Orientation in Motion Environments. But most people just think of it as a big virtual reality training system.

Johnny: Cool.

Deborah: And we're getting ready to test someone. Would you like to come in and see?

Johnny: Sure. Let's check it out.

Deborah: Okay.

Johnny: God, I hope I don't get sick.

Johnny: Oh, wow! This is neat.

Deborah: Full-immersion virtual environment system.

Johnny: Totally! When does space sickness often occur? On the way to space or throughout the mission?

Deborah: It doesn't occur throughout the mission. The biggest time for space motion sickness is in the first 24 to 72 hours on orbit and then again upon return from space flight.

Johnny: Oh.

Deborah: So and any time you change the gravity conditions, there's likely to be some motion sickness.

Johnny: Guess we… Can we fire this up?

Deborah: Yep, it's ready to go. We just have to show her how to use the space ball, and she can fly through the space shuttle.

Johnny: Well, while you're showing her, I'm walking out. You guys do what you got to do. Deborah, that was awesome. Thank you so much for everything.

Deborah: You're welcome.

Johnny: It was my pleasure. Talk about mind over matter. Jennifer, you're up.

Jennifer: Now, we all know that when our minds begin to wander, we are a lot slower to respond to things, and really, that's not good if you're a pilot. But what makes that happen? Our friend, Dr. Alan Pope. Hi, Dr. Pope.

Dr.Pope: Hi.

Jennifer: He decided to actually take a closer look into what was going on in the brains of those pilots as their minds were beginning to wander, right?

Dr.Pope: That's right. We used an electroencephalogram, or EEG, to study the pilots' brain waves while they were interacting with flight deck technology.

Jennifer:What is a brain wave? I mean, I know I have them going on. I don't think i've ever seen one before.

Dr.Pope: Well, they look like waves. They are large waves and small waves. And we studied three different kinds of brain waves: alpha waves, beta waves, and theta waves. And they differ from each other by their size, how large the valleys and hills are, and how spread apart they are.

Jennifer: Now, the system that you used in your study to study the pilots' brain waves, a little different than an EEG. Tell me about it.

Dr.Pope: We started using a closed loop system. And it's closed loop because the pilots' brain waves are connected to the simulator.

Jennifer: Sounds like the pilots were actually controlling the simulator, like a mind-control video game?

Dr.Pope: It's sort of like that.

Jennifer: It is.

Dr.Pope: And we realized that that kind of setup was very much like a neurofeedback system that's used to train, to treat ADHD.

Jennifer: Well, what did you find?

Dr.Pope: Well, that's where this guy comes in, Dr. Domenic Greco. His company has an exclusive license with NASA to produce this video game technology.

Jennifer:And he's here?

Dr.Pope: He's here.

Jennifer: Oh, let's go meet him.

Dr. Pope: [engines revving] hi, Domenic. How you doing?

Dr.Greco: Good, Alan.

Dr.Pope: This is Dr. Greco, the founder of SmartBrain Technologies.

Jennifer: So Nice to meet you.

Dr.Greco: Pleasure meeting you, Jen.

Jennifer: This is amazing, a video game that's controlled by your brain.

Dr.Greco: It's controlled by your brain just like the work Dr. Pope is doing with the flight simulators. But instead of using a flight simulator, we're using real PlayStation and Xbox video games.

Jennifer: [whispering] can I try it?

Dr.Greco: Let's get going. You're getting lots of feedback from your brain activity.

Jennifer: Okay. This vibration that I feel, what is that?

Dr.Greco: The vibration is saying that you're becoming a bit too anxious and you need to relax and calm down.

Jennifer: Now, why does this help kids with ADHD? And I'm thinking I might have ADHD, Dr. Greco. [laughs]

Dr. Greco: As we measure that activity, we feed it through the neurofeedback device, and it sends a signal to the game controller.

Dr.Greco: Okay. So the only way you can be competitive in the game and do a good job is by producing the right kind of brain activity.

Jennifer: Oh, see, that's cool. Finish! I won! Well, I don't know about that, but this is my brain on technology. How cool is that? What… What's next? I'm sure there's something coming up.


Jennifer: All right. Help, help.

Dr. Alan Pope: Here's some of my students who are working on the next generation of neurofeedback video game with an educational component. Chase, what's going on here?

Chase: Well, Dr. Pope, as you know, education and video games have really, for the longest time, been two separate realms. So our project here is really to try and incorporate them and add a bit of fun into learning. The idea is to reward students if they keep more engaged. If you stay engaged enough, then you'll get a bonus later in the game during the interactive phase.

Jennifer: Thanks for being with us today, guys. We really appreciate it.

Chase: Thank you.

Jennifer: Okay, guys, earlier in the show, we learned how our minds and machines work together to help prepare pilots for flight. Well, what about after they return to Earth? Did you know that some astronauts, when they've returned to Earth, have a problem with their locomotion? To find out what that means and how NASA's fixing it, Johnny Alonso's on the scene.

Johnny: Okay, so we know our vestibular system is what keeps us upright and balanced here on Earth and that going into space completely throws it out of whack.

But did you know that, when you return from space, your vestibular system stays out of whack for up to a few weeks? Heh, well, we can't have astronauts stumbling all over the place. So guys like Dr. Jacob Bloomberg here have devised training techniques to help astronauts readjust to Earth.

Johnny: How you doin', doc?

Dr. Bloomberg: How are you?

Johnny: Good. Good to see you.

Why do astronauts have such a hard time readapting to Earth?

Dr. Bloomberg: Well, the human brain is remarkably adaptable in the depths -- the zero-g environment of space. The down side of that is, when you return back to Earth, you need to readapt to the Earth environment. And that can even take up to several weeks at a time.

Johnny: Wow. So, doctor, tell me exactly what's going on here.

Dr. Bloomberg: Well, during this training, subjects walk here on the treadmill, and while they're walking on the treadmill, you can see that the visual scene moves up and down, and also the walking surface moves up and down too, and what this provides is a balance challenge while you're walking. This trains the brain now to become more adaptable to deal with some of these challenges. So you get better at dealing with it over time.

Johnny: This is great for astronauts. What about Earth applications?

Dr. Bloomberg: Well, falling is a real big risk factor for older adults, and we've been using some of this training to train older subjects to become more adaptable. So we think that'll prevent them from falling in the future. So we see some really widespread applications for this type of training.

Johnny: Well, doctor, this has given my brain and body a workout. Thank you for everything.

Dr. Bloomberg: Absolutely.

Johnny: Awesome, listen, stay tuned, because when NASA 360 returns, we're gonna take everything you've learned full circle with a look at robotics and bionics.

Jennifer: We all connect with various machines throughout the day, especially if we're at work, but what if your job is in an extremely remote location with intense physical demands? Oh, you might need your machine to do some of your work for you. Johnny Alonso is going behind the scenes to ask NASA, "What has your robot done for you lately?"

Johnny: Just getting to space is tough enough. And spacewalking? Heh. It's like an extreme sport. That's why sometimes astronauts need a helping hand... or two. That's why NASA teamed up with DARPA. Together they're working on robonaut, a humanoid robot that's gonna work alongside astronauts in the extremes of space. How cool is that? Come on. Let's go see what they're doing.

Johnny: hey, what's going on, bro?

Radford: Johnny, man. Good to see you.

Johnny: Good to see you too. Needless to say, this is robonaut, right?

Radford: Absolutely. This is robonaut. And actually, this is robonaut in our planetary configuration. We actually have several different lower bodies that we put on robonaut, but in this instantiation of the robot, we've got a four-wheel-drive base.

Johnny: Nice.

Radford: So we're envisioning missions for the moon and Mars.

Johnny: This is just wild. I mean, it just looks like lasers should be shooting out.

Radford: Oh, yeah, I know.

Johnny: It's fantastic.

Radford: Actually, there are lasers shooting out of this thing right here. It scans out in front of its -- in front of the base looking for rocks and stuff to -- you know, so the -- obstacle avoidance, things like that, and actually, in terms of this -- just sensing all over the robot, we've got -- we've got force sensing going on right here. So it knew to come in and not squeeze the box too hard, so it was actually actively sensing kind of the weight of the box.

Johnny: So, Nic, when do you see this robonaut technology, I mean, being used, like on the moon?

Radford: So as we head back to the moon, you know, circa 2020, before the human missions end up on the moon, you can envision robonaut landing on the moon, you know, a year or two ahead of the humans to start, you know, digging trenches for -- you know, for lack of a better word…

Johnny: …putting together habitats.

Radford: Exactly, you know, doing all the preparatory work that's gonna be required so that when the astronauts land on the moon, they're just productive out of the box.

Johnny: So is this timed one-to-one?

Radford: Oh, man, that's a great question. It depends on where it's operated from.

Johnny: Okay.

Radford: And it depends on, you know, factors like the speed of light and stuff like that. So what we're actually looking in that instance is something that we call supervisory control, whereas I'm a guy back at mission control or a person in a lab or in a hab module operating maybe two or three of these robots. And what I'm starting to do is, I'm starting to tell the robot, "Go over here and do this activity." So I'm actually not controlling the actions of the robot one-to-one, but I've stepped back at a very high level, and I'm controlling maybe three or four of these things, just pointing out activities for them to do.

Johnny: So I just realized that robonaut's spun, what, about 180 degrees?

Radford: When it's -- when it has the -- when it's anthropomorphic like this, when I'm running the robot, it's then intuitive for me to control. So when I tele-operate the robot, I put the headset on, I put the -- I put the virtual reality glove, and I step in to this huge virtual rea-- you know, environment of the robot, and I look down. And I got robot arms, I got robot hands, you know, I got robot legs, and as I move around, the robot moves around and mimics my actions. You get a lot of advantage by making it look like a human.

Johnny: Nic, thanks a lot, bro.

Radford: Johnny, pleasure, man.

Johnny: See you soon, huh? Robonaut, later.

Johnny: Robotic technology obviously has some important applications in space, but lately, it's been making a huge impact here on Earth. Combining the powers of mind and the machine right where the body needs it? That's technology with a whole lot of heart.

Jennifer: So what do you get when you combine the revolutionary advancements in robotic arms and hands like robonaut has with the neurofeedback technology that's helping kids with ADHD? Only the most amazing connection between mind, body, and machine: bionic prosthetics. You heard me right. I'm talking about prosthetic hands and arms that are controlled by the mind.

Jennifer: Jesse Sullivan has the first ever prototype. Just by thinking about it, he can remove a credit card from his pocket. He can stack cups using sensory feedback. The prosthetics can even improve his gait when the limbs are in the free-swing mode.

Jennifer: This is a culmination of decades worth of research by experts all over the country and all brought together in just a few years for DARPA's revolutionizing prosthetics program, an idea born from the desire to help soldiers returning from war with the loss of limbs. Each element of the bionic prosthetic required a team of experts.

Jennifer: Some perfected the control and dexterity of the mechaNics. Others worked on the sensory feedback or on creating a lightweight design. And prototype two might include synthetic skin, flexible, integrated, lightweight, multifunctional skin called F.I.L.M. skin.

Jennifer: Oakridge National Lab is developing the temperature sensor for F.I.L.M. skin, while the National Institute of Aerospace at NASA Langley Research Center develops advanced pressure sensors.

Jennifer: Now, together, the sensors will allow an amputee to do something as simple as picking up a paper cup full of hot coffee. They'll be able to sense how hot it is and know how hard to squeeze the cup so they won't spill.

Jennifer: Sound simple? What were you expecting? Super human strength? It's only a matter of time. Human beings are continually adapting to new technology. Yet there is still so much to learn about how our minds and bodies work together naturally.

Jennifer: So how deep will the relationship between mind, body, and machine go? Who's to say? A little human ingenuity goes a long way, and machines will no doubt join us in our endeavors, whether it's exploring new worlds or working to make our own a little bit better.

For Johnny Alonso, I'm Jennifer Pulley. Thanks for watching NASA 360.


* * *

Johnny: Wow! Am I a spaz, or what? Is this working out?

* * *

Jennifer: Limbs are in the free-swing mode--oops.

* * *

Johnny: Looks like the brother of an ex-girlfriend that I dated a long time ago. So yeah, kind of agree with you. [both laughing] Cut.

* * *

Jennifer: After they've gotten back from... space.

* * *

Johnny: Back to you with Jen-- oh, again.

* * *

Johnny: How does robonaut dance? Well, I mean, we've actually programmed the YMCA. You did. Can you show… Yeah, I mean, it's just, you know… But it wouldn't be like, you know, kind of like… It'd be kind of Y-M-C-A. Or… Oh, my god, this camera's rolling!

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