For the first time, astronaut Doug Wheelock hung on to a handrail outside the International Space Station (ISS), and looked down at the Earth.
"I know exactly where I am," he thought. "It looks just like the VR Lab."
That familiarity is a quick comfort not only for Wheelock, but for many astronauts past, present, and future, floating hundreds of miles above the Earth, trying to get a job done in one of the most hostile working environments imaginable.
In space, an astronaut's next minutes are never guaranteed. They have to adjust to the drastically modified rules of physics, and to a calmness and a slowness that masks danger.
Inside Wheelock's spacesuit, he was aware of the frightening silence of space, broken only by the voices coming in through his communications cap, the ventilation system of his suit, and his own heartbeat. Outside, temperatures were fluctuating between 300 degrees Fahrenheit and negative 300 degrees in 90-minute cycles.
Space is beautiful—but unforgiving.
Wheelock knew it would be like this.
His preparation from the Virtual Reality Lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center was both mental and physical.
As the spacewalk—or extra vehicular activity (EVA)—turns 50 in 2015, its history is inextricably linked to the development and use of a technology that's long been derided as a toy.
For as long as virtual reality has existed, even conceptually, its constant companions have been hype, gimmickry, and unmet expectations. While the commercial VR industry has waited for another shot at world domination, Johnson Space Center's VR Lab doggedly worked on ways to better train astronauts for one of the most dangerous excursions of their lives.
Virtual reality has matured and developed into a mission-critical training tool. NASA has pushed a number of different technologies to their limits to pull it off, without the glare of industry expectations or the pressure of packaging it into a consumer product. Their solution isn't flashy, but it's immensely powerful. And it works.
The main reason for the success of NASA's VR experiment is ridiculously obvious—there's no other way to replicate space here on Earth.