Inside the Collection

Behind the Scenes: Creating the Columbia Command Module Virtual Reality Experience

Written by Arul Baskaran and Sarah Reeves

This exhibition has now closed. Skip to the end of the post to watch a video capture of the Columbia VR experience.

3D render of the inside of a spacecraft. A control panel with innumerable buttons and switches fills most of the image, with three small hatches and windows above it. Image: Andrew Yip, iCinema
3D render of the interior of the Columbia Command Module, as seen in the VR experience, complete with the additional hatch (top centre) that the iCinema team synthesised to complete the 3D model. Image: Andrew Yip, iCinema

21 July 1969. The world watches as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explore the Lunar surface, after their history-making Moon Landing. They plant the flag, take photographs and collect rock samples for scientific analysis back on Earth. Meanwhile, far above the Moon’s surface Michael Collins, the third astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission, orbits alone in the Columbia Command Module – almost 395,000 km from home and the most isolated human alive.

Apollo 11: celebrating 50 years

In June 2019 the Museum opened a new temporary exhibition which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time. The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through the Space Race era: the rapidly advancing rocketry technology that resulted as the two great superpowers of America and the Soviet Union competed to land the first man on the Moon, and the Moon Mania that swept the world as the race escalated.

An earlier post talked about the process of curating the Apollo 11 exhibition. One of the things we most wanted to convey through the exhibition was to give visitors insight into the three Apollo astronauts not as heroic, historical figures, as we typically think of them, but as real, ordinary people who were taking incredible risks in the name of science, exploration and the national agenda. We hoped to put visitors inside the mind of the astronauts so they could really imagine what the experience would have been like.

We also knew that, in the lead up to the anniversary, Apollo-related objects would be in high demand and largely unavailable to access as loans. This sparked a new idea – what if we could borrow ‘virtual’ objects to create a new kind of exhibition experience?

Conical-shaped spacecraft, photographed in a studio, constructed from numerous metal panels riveted together, now a rusted brown colour. Closest to the viewer is a rectangular hatch, with several small ‘side’ windows.
The Apollo 11 Columbia Command Module. National Air and Space Museum Collection: A19700102000. Photo: Eric Long, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, 2014

Inside the Columbia spacecraft

With all this in mind, we set about creating a brand-new virtual reality (VR) experience, in which visitors can step inside the Columbia Command Module – the spacecraft that carried the three astronauts to the Moon and back. With the real Columbia spacecraft on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, the VR experience would allow us to bring this central part of the mission to our exhibition in Sydney, for visitors to see, hear and feel what it was like on board the Command Module.

We knew that for the 47th anniversary, the Smithsonian Institution had undertaken detailed 3D scanning of both the interior and exterior of the Command Module and made the resulting models available online. The Powerhouse team contacted the Smithsonian to see if they would allow us to use their 3D model, and found them enthusiastic, helpful and very supportive. The Smithsonian Digitization Office was able to supply us with high-resolution 3D scans of the command module free-of-charge, and we were on our way.

Close up of a control panel with innumerable buttons and switches. On the right mannequin of an astronaut sits, demonstrating the cramped conditions on board and the complexity of the spacecraft.
Interior of the Apollo 11 Columbia Command Module, showing the complex instrument panel, and cramped conditional on board. National Air and Space Museum Collection: A19700102000. Photo: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, c 1998
Metal panel with rivets around the edge. Handwritten text in green ink reads: ‘Spacecraft 107 – alias Apollo 11 / alias “Columbia” / The Best Ship to Come Down the Line / God Bless Her / Michael Collins / CMP’.
The handwritten inscription that Michael Collins made on the interior of the Columbia Command Module during his time orbiting the Moon alone. Photo: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Creating the experience

This was followed by an intense period of user experience design and VR application development. To create the software, we teamed up with the iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research, an interdisciplinary research group spanning the creative arts, engineering, humanities, based at UNSW, who focus on applications of immersive interactivity in the arts, broadcast, construction, environment, heritage, museum and visualisation sectors, and who specialise in creating these kinds of experiences. The first step was storyboarding a narrative – we didn’t just want visitors to sit inside the module, we wanted to take them on a journey. Wanting also to provide a different perspective on the mission, we chose to write the experience from the perspective of Michael Collins – the often-forgotten third astronaut who remained alone on board Columbia, orbiting the Moon, while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the surface in the Eagle Lunar Module.

During the nearly 28 hours that Collins spent alone, he ate, slept, and carried out a variety of tasks for NASA – checking the Eagle’s landing gear was intact as it separated from Columbia, trying to spot the lander on the surface, and more mundane requests like dumping excess waste-water. He orbited the Moon some 14 times, each orbit taking him out of radio contact for 48 minutes, as Columbia flew behind the Moon, blocking the signal from Earth. Alone, almost 395,000 km from home, Collins was the most isolated human alive, waiting anxiously to see whether Neil and Buzz would make it safely back off the surface to re-join Columbia.

Drawing on mission audio and transcripts, we were able to piece together a snapshot of Collins’ time alone on board the Columbia. Collins’ experience is one shared by only five other people on Earth (the Command Module Pilots of Apollo 12 and 14-17), but through virtual reality visitors can live the experience for themselves. The whole experience takes about 4 minutes.

Screen capture, 3D rendering of the Command Module and Lunar Module immediately after separation, with grey landscape below. There are various lightbulb and speaker icons superimposed on the Command Module, and coordinates icon (x, y, z) in the top right.
Development of the VR experience in Unity 3D video game engine, showing the Columbia Command Module and Eagle Lunar Module immediately after separation, and the placement of interior lighting and sound effects. Image: Andrew Yip, iCinema
Screen capture, 3D rendering of the Command Module and Lunar Module shortly after separation, with grey landscape below. There are various ‘trajectory lines’ running between the two spacecraft and a ‘Camera Preview’ inset of the interior in the bottom right.
Development of the VR experience in Unity 3D video game engine, with the Lunar surface below, capturing the trajectory of the Eagle Lunar Module after undocking, as it begins its descent to the Moon. Image: Andrew Yip, iCinema

Technical development

The software was built in Unity 3D, an industry-standard video game engine. Much like game development, this involved applying textures, lighting effects and rendering to the raw 3D model. The VR model was internally-lit to conform to the original lighting within the Command Module. A 360-degree spatial soundscape, designed by Jessica and Jay James-Moody, was inserted to add to the realism. Models of the Lunar terrain, as well as the Eagle Lunar Lander, were added to create the changing views seen through the hatch windows as the module orbited the Moon.

We decided early on to use the new Occulus Rift S headsets that had just been released. The headsets are attached to a high-powered computer housed under each seat, which means visitors don’t need to wear a bulky backpack as in some VR implementations. Throughout the experience, the visitors receive radio instructions from NASA, directing them to carry out various tasks that Collins actually completed during this part of the mission. NASA’s requests might require visitors to move the joystick, press a button or flick a switch on the complex control panel in front of them, all of which is gaze-activated, based on where the users looks around them, allowing visitors to interact without the need for a keyboard, mouse or hand-controller. NASA’s instructions comprise a combination of real mission audio (‘The Eagle has Landed’), as well portions that we re-recorded (voiced by Jay James-Moody), based on the mission transcripts, where the original audio was too poor to understand.

As a relatively new technology, Museums are still trying to figure out how best to use virtual reality. The technology clearly offers an unparalleled ability for bringing historical objects to life, but the implementations can often be complex, requiring instruction from staff before visitors can even begin the experience, something that can make less tech-savvy visitors shy away from having a go. One of our goals in creating the Columbia VR experience was to make the user interface as simple as possible, so that visitors can walk up to it on the floor, don the headset and enjoy, with no need for intervention from staff. For us, creating the Apollo VR was both an amazing opportunity and a real learning experience for how VR can be used in a Museum setting.

Dark nook with two seats built back-to-back. Above each seat dangles a VR headset attached to a metal pole. A woman sits in one seat wearing the headset. On the walls is an instructional text panel and backlit schematics of the Columbia control panels.
The Columbia Command Module VR experience in the Apollo 11 exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum. Photo: MAAS

Audience reception and learnings

Audience response has been overwhelming. On the opening weekend of the exhibition queues for the VR were so long that the Museum had to quickly assign visitor services officers to help manage access. The next week we established a booking system, with visitors often book far ahead to secure a spot. To date almost 30,000 visitors have enjoyed the VR experience, and the feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive.

Our initial aim to create a totally unmoderated experience proved hard to achieve. This was largely due to demand and a need to manage booking and queuing, and a realisation that some visitors prefer to have someone guiding them through the onboarding process. But the big success has been the confirmation that immersive virtual technologies, when used correctly, can truly enhance the visitor experience in Museums, offering new perspectives visitors and new storytelling opportunities for exhibition design.

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