The science of science fiction is more nonfictional almost every day. For example, look at the "Star Trek" franchise. Communicators on our wrists, laser weapons, and voice interface devices are all technological marvels that only existed on television a few decades ago.
SAIC's integration of virtual reality (VR) into our space mission training closely mirrors a few pieces of pop culture: “Ready Player One,” “Ender’s Game,” and the '80s cult classic “The Last Starfighter.” All three of these science fiction icons use simulated environments to engage players in training missions and operations. The fictional trainees go a bit beyond reality by using external tools like treadmills, physical command centers, and video game consoles. But the application is near similar; they are training as they fight in situations that simulate the real pressures and intensities of achieving mission success.
Outside of these fictional works, VR training may sound like an unnecessary enhancement, especially for space missions. But drawing a plan on a whiteboard and translating it to coders will neither yield the preparatory skills space warfighters need today nor facilitate a warfighter mindset.
To further compare our solutions to pop culture, look at the video game Star Trek: Bridge Crew. It is a VR-enabled game that positions players as members of the bridge crew on one of Starfleet’s ships in the Star Trek universe. Players choose between taking the role of captain on the bridge, tactical officer, engineer, and helm officer. Players have to physically speak and interact with each other while engaging their virtual command interfaces to complete missions and tasks — just like in a real mission command center.
These operations are not too dissimilar from what we do at SAIC. Our VR capabilities with the Pilot Training Next (PTN) program are very well-known and proven, allowing U.S. Air Force pilots to train as they fight. But space operations and command are not the same as flying a jet. It’s more like taking a seat on the starship U.S.S. Enterprise, with collaboration among multiple mission-critical team members and tasks. All have different roles and responsibilities and need to work together. We just don’t fight Klingons yet.
SAIC has already proven this concept for Space and Missile Systems Center's (SMC) Remote Sensing Systems Directorate by developing virtual environments of the operations floor as well as the satellites SMC keeps in space. Some SMC operators only see these satellites as blips or icons on a screen. It’s awesome to watch the operators’ jaws drop as the satellite they’re operating digitizes before their eyes and they are able to walk up to and around it. It puts a new perspective on the importance of their work.
This proof point was a huge success because we pitched the concept in April 2019 and delivered the initial capability just six months later. This initial capability includes visualizations and walk-arounds of constellations, satellites, and mobile operation centers, as well as the ability to load and run through mission threads that would actually be encountered. There is great application to systems engineering — but especially great application to space mission training. The six-month turnaround piqued the interest of several organizations that want to bring space missions to virtual reality.
We’ve made a significant investment in VR equipment to continue to be used by organizations within the new U.S. Space Force as a part of our solution for future space warfighter training. A lot of new personnel don’t even see the operations floor until their first days of work because of security and clearance reasons. But thanks to virtual reality, they will be mission-ready on their first days as space warfighters, saving time, money, and valuable resources.
Even using the term “space warfighter” is a major mentality shift from the past. If the space enterprise wants to successfully command any future fight in space, this change of thinking enables operators to better understand threat environments and downstream implications for mission objectives.
Mission-critical information cannot be uploaded currently into the VR environment due to security concerns. However, given the right facilities and accreditations, this issue will be overcome. How do we ask an operator-in-training how to respond to a threat when the response options are classified? We also need to find a means to integrate artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced analytics to enhance operator experiences.
We can reasonably say that a war with the Klingons is pure fiction and not in our future. But to understand tomorrow’s space threats, our space warfighters need to train as they fight and utilize any means possible today. Our capabilities and technologies may seem like they’re taken from the pages of an Orson Scott Card novel, but the truth is stranger than (science) fiction.