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Adrift is as close as most of us will get to a spacewalk — nausea and all

Comparing virtual astronauts to the real ones

ThreeOneZero

I'm floating in the ruins of a destroyed space station positioned somewhere in lower Earth orbit, with large chunks of debris passing me by. If my situation wasn't dire enough, my spacesuit is malfunctioning, and I'm quickly running out of the oxygen that's keeping me alive. I need to find air fast — and fortunately, I spot a box of oxygen canisters floating right in front of me. I use my suit's small propulsion system to move forward, so I can reach out and grab one, and I manage to refill my air supply just in time before I suffocate to death.

Now that the situation has been handled, I can finally focus on another big problem that's been looming over me: I feel like I'm going to throw up.

The game does seem to accurately recreate the motions of spacewalking

Perhaps that's just the level of realness that the game Adrift is going for, which I'm currently struggling with in virtual reality on the Oculus Rift. One of the first things astronauts have to deal with when traveling to space is something called Space Adaptation Syndrome — a type of motion sickness that occurs when the body adjusts to a microgravity environment. Though my nausea is likely an unintended side effect of being new to VR, Adrift does posit itself as a realistic depiction of what it's like to travel in zero-G. And for the most part, the game does seem to accurately recreate the motions of spacewalking, despite making a few strange technological leaps.

Adrift is essentially the video game version of the movie Gravity. You assume the role of the sole surviving astronaut of some devastating space catastrophe in the year 2037; the station you've been living and working on has been broken apart by some unknown cosmic event, and you must navigate the remaining debris field to conduct repairs and figure out what went wrong. Along the way, you need to always be on the lookout for those floating air canisters. Some kind of malfunction has caused your suit to use oxygen to power your thrusters, so whenever you propel yourself forward, vital air is depleted.

The game poses a much more frightening scenario than any spacewalking astronaut has ever had to endure, but it does capture the fundamentals of what it's like to float through space. A subtle nudge forward keeps me moving in that direction indefinitely — and that's how it works in space, too. Without any gravitational forces acting on an astronaut, a person will continue moving in one direction until an object changes his or her course. It takes me a while before I realize how little effort is needed to move my character in the direction I want to go. One small push forward, and I stay moving forward. And when I inevitably hit a wall, it's very disorienting trying to figure out the new direction I'm moving.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly conducts a spacewalk outside the International Space Station. (NASA)

Real astronauts conducting spacewalks, also called extravehicular activities (EVAs), have to move at a slow, deliberate pace, just as I learn to do in the game. NASA's suits, for instance, weigh upwards of 300 pounds, according to Mallory Jennings, a system manager for the current NASA spacesuit. Add the astronaut to the suit and all the tools they have to carry, and the combination is a very significant mass moving through space. "If they’re not careful, the spacesuit can get out of hand," said Jennings. "I always compare it to shopping at the grocery store: when you're starting with your cart that’s empty, it's easy to start and stop. When you load up with all your groceries, it's much harder to start the cart moving, but it's also a lot harder to stop it moving."

Real astronauts conducting spacewalks have to move at a slow, deliberate pace

Rather than rely on propulsion to get around, as Adrift's main character has to do, spacewalking astronauts typically move by grabbing on to the sides of the International Space Station, and they are tethered to the vehicle's structure to keep from floating away. Similarly, all the tools the astronaut must use during the walk are tethered to the suit, otherwise they could be lost as well. NASA astronauts do have a propulsion system on their space suits, called SAFER, but it's only meant to be used in case of emergencies. "It’s kind of a propulsion backpack worn below their life support system," said Jennings. "It could rescue them and allow them to grab back on the station."

SAFER would never run on oxygen as the propulsion system does in Adrift; it uses high-pressure nitrogen and is in no way connected to life support. "Those are very separate systems," said Jennings. "We don’t want those things to be tied together." Astronauts breathe 100 percent pure oxygens in their suits, which are pressured to a little less than one-third of Earth's atmosphere, according to NASA. Spacewalking crew members are also supplied with enough oxygen to last them up to eight to 10 hours during a single trip outside the station, said Jennings. Secondary oxygen and pressure systems are in place if a hole were to appear in the suit, leaking out air and causing depressurization.

Unfortunately, my Adrift character only has about 15 minutes before another shot of oxygen is needed. Otherwise, her vision turns white and she starts clawing at her helmet, gasping for her last few breaths of air. (I also personally start screaming, but that's because I can't handle the prospect of virtual death.) In real life, NASA astronauts have never even come close to suffocating during a spacewalk — but things have gone wrong. In 2013, a suit malfunction caused water to flood the helmet of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, triggering an immediate abort of his spacewalk. No holes have ever ripped open a suit, but if that scenario ever occurred, alarms would go off in the suit and the spacewalker would immediately head for the station. "Even at the farthest point away from the end of the truss, you can get back inside the station within 30 minutes," said Jennings. "That's more than enough time to get to oxygen and all your life support systems to keep you alive."

Of course, the station in Adrift doesn't provide much support of any kind, having been torn to pieces. Floating through the game's destruction makes me thankful that the events in this virtual world have never come close to being realized in space. But despite depicting an unlikely station catastrophe, Adrift does partially capture some of the of physics of being in microgravity. It brought me pretty close to feeling like an actual astronaut — queasiness and all.