Grace Wusk, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering and mechanics in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, is simulating spacewalks using virtual reality headsets.

“I’m an avid outdoor enthusiast and enjoy connecting my experiences on the trail to future visions of explorers navigating the Moon and Mars,” said Wusk, who attributes her time at NASA to guiding her doctoral research, which focuses on astronaut health and performance. “I am working on developing a psychophysiological monitoring tool for astronauts during spacewalks.”

In her first year at Virginia Tech as a graduate student in the Center for Injury Biomechanics, with her advisor H. Clay Gabler, Wusk researched improving safety of drivers and passengers during car crashes. Using sensors in car seats, she collected data in the lab to measure an individual’s heart rate and respiratory patterns.

This sensory data to monitor drivers and passengers prompted ideas and more questions about using wearable sensors to monitor astronauts during spaceflight. Through a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship, Wusk is working toward designing a psychophysiological monitoring tool, using a collection of wearable sensors, to be tested during virtual reality spacewalk simulations.

“As we continue exploring space, we rely on autonomous systems,” Wusk said. “It’s important to understand how these systems interact with humans during physically and cognitively demanding tasks, such as spacewalks. Astronauts’ physiological and behavioral responses can help us understand their cognitive state.” 

Grace Wusk, doctoral student in biomedical engineering and mechanics at Virginia Tech
Grace Wusk, doctoral student in biomedical engineering and mechanics, conducts research to monitor astronaut's psychophysiological responses during simulated spacewalks. Spencer Roberts for Virginia Tech.

As an undergraduate, Wusk interned at NASA Langley Research Center, monitoring pilots' physical states through eye movement, heart rate, and brain activity in commercial flight simulators. She learned about using pilots’ physiological responses to understand their cognitive abilities and their attention while flying.

This same idea is applied to astronauts to monitor their cognitive abilities in spaceflight. Wusk now uses sensors to monitor biosignals with the goal of developing a tool that would monitor an astronaut’s cognitive state in space.

“I really enjoyed the research that I worked on as an intern, particularly the balance between understanding the human body and mind and understanding the state-of-the-art technology,” Wusk said.

The psychophysiological monitoring research aligns with her colleague’s research in the department, like Gabler, who uses modeling techniques to study safety in car crashes. The team studies both passive and active safety, meaning they study ways to be safer by avoiding car crashes and ways to be safer in a car crash, especially since not all car crashes can be prevented.

The team also investigates mechanisms following crash trauma with the aim to develop a greater understanding of human tolerance to injury, to engineer enhanced safety countermeasures, and to mitigate the occurrence of serious injury in society.

Grace Wusk, doctoral student in biomedical engineering and mechanics, works on research in Gabler's research lab
Grace Wusk conducts research in Clay Gabler's lab using modeling techniques to improve safety. Spencer Roberts for Virginia Tech.

Wusk’s experiences with NASA have enhanced her research path. “Seeing the different simulation environments used for research and astronaut training at NASA has given me the ability to see how my research fits into NASA’s visions and goals,” Wusk said.

She plans to continue to build on this research as she progresses through her doctoral program in hopes that after graduation she can continue work with NASA to design models and simulations to increase understanding of human health performance during spacewalks.

Written by Laura Weatherford