VR could help astronauts avoid seasickness during splashdown and recovery

an astronaut is surrounded by people holding him in a life boat. behind him is an open spacecraft hatch. in far back is the ocean
NASA astronaut Victor Glover (in orange flight suit, center) being helped by recovery personnel during an Artemis 2 recovery exercise in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 25, 2024. (Image credit: NASA/Kenny Allen)

Last month, the next four moon astronauts practiced an ocean recovery after a long mission.

In the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego, the astronauts of Artemis 2 were assisted out of a mockup Orion spacecraft to learn how to exit safely after their crewed round-the-moon mission, slated to lift off in September 2025. Helping them during the ocean splashdown exercises were NASA personnel and the U.S. Navy.

It's natural to feel queasy anyway when coming back to Earth's gravity from a few days or months floating in space, but adding in ocean swells could be a recipe for problems. Luckily, new virtual reality (VR) technology may help astronauts with feeling less ill during their return to Earth.

Related: Why a VR headset on the ISS 'really makes a difference' for astronaut exercise

After decades of space shuttle and Russian Soyuz spacecraft landings on land for astronauts, splashdowns are back on now with both NASA's Orion spacecraft (led by Lockheed Martin) and SpaceX's Crew Dragon. (Boeing Starliner astronauts will touch down on land, as do space tourists with Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin.) 

But seasickness is a problem even if you're not coming back from space. So the University of Colorado Boulder is running numerous experiments to help combat motion sickness in astronauts, adding on to decades of research in the field. A newer tool shows a lot of promise: VR goggles.

One of their experiments put volunteers into a centrifuge, where the simulated astronauts individually spun for an hour. That motion "mimics the disorientation astronauts experience when they suddenly transition from microgravity to the harshness of Earth's gravity," university officials wrote in a statement.

University of Colorado Boulder graduate student Taylor Lonner dons a virtual reality headset inside the Tilt-Translation Sled, a machine that, in experiments, can mimic the motion of ocean waves. (Image credit: University of Colorado, Boulder / Taylor Lonner)

The participants were then put into a "sled" to be rocked back and forth for as long as an hour, depending on how long they lasted. (Ill subjects received rapid escapes, if they needed it.) But if you could stand it, VR goggles strapped on to your head studied how long you could last in the sled.

Half the 30 subjects only had a white dot against a black background to focus on, while the other half saw "a digital forest complete with a few cartoon humans for scale," university officials wrote. The forest, trees and people rocked back and forth with the sled, allowing 12 of the 15 forest-viewing subjects to survive the whole hour. That's compared with about 5 of the 15 people looking at the dot alone.

Graduate student Taylor Lonner is among the team studying aspects of motion sickness, and says the astronauts will need all the help they can get when they come back to Earth. This is true not only of Orion, but of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft regularly used for splashdowns after International Space Station missions.

A virtual forest was used to assist subjects with simulated seasickness, after returning home from Earth. (Image credit: University of Colorado Boulder/Clark lab)

"If you look at Orion and Dragon, there are only a few porthole windows that really aren't sufficient for giving astronauts a fixed view of Earth," Lonner said in the university statement, and noted that the problem isn't confined just to professional astronauts. Space tourists on quick jaunts into suborbital space may also be prone to motion sickness.

"We're increasing this whole bubble of space exploration," Lonner said, in reference to the numbers of non-professionals flying into space. "But people aren't going to want to do that if they're just going to be miserable when they get to microgravity and when they return to Earth."

The team also presented its results in February at NASA's annual Human Research Program Investigators' Workshop in Galveston, Texas.

If you're looking for a VR headset for your own residence, check out our best VR headset guide. We have tested the major headset platforms for different types of gamers and to suit a range of budgets. Whether you want high resolution, a wireless experience or a budget-friendly option, the guide will cover you.  

9. HTC Vive XR Elite

Hybrid VR and AR in a portable, but expensive package.


Platforms: Android or PC VR
Price: $1099 / £1299
Resolution: 1920x1920 per eye
Field of view: Up to 110 degrees
Refresh rate: 90 Hz
Controllers: Included controllers

Reasons to buy

Lightweight, goggle-like design
Mixed reality that’s almost affordable

Reasons to avoid

Still pricey
Lacking killer apps

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace