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

a person wearing a headset inside a very crowded international space station module with experiments covering every surface
European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen testing a VIVE Focus 3 virtual reality headset on the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA / ESA)

Astronauts can now get a bit of simulated fresh air while working out in space.

A virtual reality (VR) headset paired with a new exercise bike lets International Space Station (ISS) astronauts experience their favorite cycling routes on Earth. Denmark's Andreas Mogensen, for example, has five routes to choose from in locations ranging from Copenhagen to Svanninge Bakker.

"It's actually one of my absolute favorite activities on board the space station," said Mogensen, commander of the ISS' current Expedition 70 and a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, told Space.com during a Wednesday (Feb. 21) press conference from the ISS about science experiments.

"It really makes a difference," Mogensen added. "There's something about when you see yourself biking up a hill, in the virtual reality headset, you just have more motivation to pedal a little bit harder."

Related: A VR headset that could help astronaut mental health is launching to ISS on SpaceX rocket

The HTC VIVE Focus 3 adds to a growing set of VR gear on the ISS aiming to help astronauts maintain their mental health in space, where crowded conditions, separation from friends and family and an intense schedule can contribute to feelings of loneliness.

"I absolutely love it. It also connects me with nature," Mogensen added of the VR exercise gear. "I feel like I'm out in the countryside biking, and it's just wonderful. It really is. We live on board the space station, which is a very synthetic environment. We can't go outside. We're not in contact with nature. This is as close as it gets. I use it every single time I exercise on the bike."

Astronauts have plenty of gear for exercise on the ISS, including a weightlifting machine and a treadmill. The exercise bike is called CEVIS, or Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization. The first-generation CEVIS, installed in 2001, was used by 170 astronauts in its first 20 years of service alone, according to maker Danish Aerospace.

While CEVIS helped keep astronauts fit, there were limitations. It faced experiments in the busy U.S. Destiny laboratory, for instance, making it difficult to focus. The bike also maxed out at 350 watts of power during exercise, meaning that astronauts who wanted a more intense workout had few options.

Two exercise bikes on the International Space Station. Left: NASA astronaut Sunita Williams using the Cycle Ergometer with Vibration Isolation and Stabilization (CEVIS) during Expeditions 32-33. Right: European Space Agency astronaut poses with the Teal CEVIS, which replaced CEVIS in October 2023. (Image credit: NASA)

A smaller, lighter and more powerful 500-watt unit known as Teal CEVIS was installed on the ISS on Oct. 24, 2023 after a previous installation try that month ran into "volume issues", according to NASA's ISS blog. The newer cycle also connects with the VIVE Focus 3, which has special sensors allowing the headset to work in the absence of gravity (lessening the seasickness you could feel with older VR systems).

The headset allows Mogensen "to combat the sterile and bland interior of the ISS, as well as the the constant hum of machines," VIVE officials wrote in a recent statement. "As he cycles, the scenery moves in time, and the VIVE Focus 3 sends information via Bluetooth to (the bike), which provides resistance as he cycles uphill or on different surfaces."

International Space Station astronauts have used virtual reality headsets many times in space. Here, NASA astronaut and Expedition 65 flight engineer Megan McArthur wears a set of high-tech goggles called "Sidekick," an adapted Microsoft HoloLens, for an augmented reality experiment in 2021. (Image credit: NASA)

The VIVE Focus 3 was originally flown to the ISS for mental health purposes last year. Mogensen and other astronauts planned to perform "in-flight testing sessions comprised of VR video viewing and questionnaires", NASA officials have stated of the experiment. An ESA experiment called EveryWear also was going to be included, after adaptation from a previous version that measured food intake.

The VIVE Focus work, in partnership with entities like XRHealth, Danish Aerospace Company and Nord-Space Aps, is far from the first VR headset on ISS, according to NASA materials. Other headsets have helped astronauts with applications such as controlling robots, performing experiments or doing maintenance tasks or training. 

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

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

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