Even by NASA standards, the newest mission in search of life on other planets is really, really complicated. Loaded with literal moving parts, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope—“JWST” for short—is as ambitious as it is technically challenging. As anyone who watched the Mars Rover landing (or the movie Gravity) with bated breath can attest, a lot can go wrong in outer space.

That’s why virtual reality hardware—with the Oculus Rift VR headset leading the charge—provides a perfect testing ground for feats of engineering like the Webb spacecraft. And, believe it or not, the Webb team is already putting the Rift to the test.

Not Your Average Space Telescope

NASA’s new space observatory—scheduled for an October 2018 launch—will ably take the baton carried by the Kepler spacecraft, NASA’s prolific planet finder launched in 2009, to seek worlds that resemble our own. About as tall as a four story building, Webb is shaped more like a pirate ship than a rocket. That’s because Webb cleverly folds down to catch a ride into space.

Once there, the space telescope blooms from its flower bud-like form, all while it moves to its programmed position. To collect deeper data than anything ever launched into space, the spacecraft has unique features, like an advanced honeycomb of 18 gold hexagonal mirrors to gather light (in the form of heat) and a specialized sunshield canopy to keep the instruments extremely cool.

Unlike the Hubble space telescope, which hangs out in Earth’s orbit like a satellite, Webb will travel one million miles away from our home planet, where it will soak up data in the form of photons. Currently, three-quarters of the hardware, a massive engineering undertaking, is complete.

Space Science Meets Game Science

The Oculus Rift has plenty of less astrophysical applications.

Here in Austin, NASA’s booth is stationed about 15 feet into SXSW 2014’s gaming expo—a cacophony of cosplay and virtual assault rifles—and that’s no coincidence. Given the increasing grandeur, intricacy and expense of the agency’s deep space missions, NASA’s big dreams now intersect with the gaming industry’s expansive imagination at myriad points. (Beyond VR, NASA has partnered with the makers of the Kerbal Space Program, a space simulation game, to fire up interest in its [real] Asteroid Redirect Mission.)

Here at SXSW 2014, I spoke to Dr. Alberto Conti, Innovation Manager and astrophysicist at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems—NASA’s main contractor for designing and building the JWST—about how virtual reality and the Oculus Rift are changing the game.

“There’s a lot—a lot—of modeling that’s been done in astronomy in general for many, many years,” Conti said. But physical test chambers and non-immersive virtual modeling (think a PC screen) are giving way to hardware pioneered by the gaming world.

“One of the things that we’re very interested in doing is to try to use the Oculus. To try to use immersive realities to [create] scenarios for particular simulations: say you can simulate an instrument for example, or you can simulate our systems and how they behave,” Conti said. “We’re moving that direction.”

Be The Simulation

Webb's hexagonal mirror segments

Conti waxed downright enthusiastic about what engineers can accomplish with immersive virtual reality:

We have both this immersive 360 degree [simulator]—our ‘holodeck’—but we also have the ability to hook up an Oculus. [Oculus] has the hardware right. It’s a very interesting piece of hardware because it changes the paradigm…. [Conti gestures at a massive touchscreen at the NASA booth showcasing the Kepler and Hubble missions.] This is immersive, it’s touch, it’s great—but you’re not in it.

You can imagine actually using [the Oculus Rift] for serious work. What if I have an engineer look at the schematics of how a particular instrument works? What if you could actually simulate how the light goes through an instrument inside the James Webb space telescope? That’s pretty powerful, right?

Particularly for things that are as complex as Webb. The more complex they are, the more the role of simulation is going to grow.

Conti also thinks the Oculus Rift could help scientists browse massive data sets with only gestures and engineers test virtual instruments in two hours rather than waiting six months.

“I think we are starting to see all of this stuff become commercial and very, very cheap,” he said. “There’s going to be an explosion of these kinds of tools. Your minority report kind of thing is not that far fetched—people do it now. Oculus is getting very close to that.”

Webb images courtesy of NASA/JWST; Oculus Rift image by Taylor Hatmaker for ReadWrite

Corrected, March 12: A caption in an earlier version of this story misidentified the JWST’s hexagonal mirror segments. Thanks to commenter dabe2 for the catch.