As the world awaits the Sunday (Dec. 11) splashdown of NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will mark the end of the Artemis 1 mission, many are already looking forward to the crewed Artemis 2 flight.
Artemis 1 was designed as an uncrewed test flight for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, the capsule that will eventually return humans to the moon no earlier than 2024. NASA hasn’t sent human crews to the moon since Dec. 7, 1972, and in the past 50 years, a lot has changed in terms of the technologies that can be incorporated into a spacecraft.
In the Apollo era, there were no touchscreens or digital displays for astronauts to use inside their command modules or lunar landers. (The first NASA astronauts to use touchscreen technology aboard a spacecraft were Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who used them when they flew aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon in 2020.) As NASA scientists and engineers continue to help prepare for the next generation of astronauts to fly to the moon and back as part of the Artemis program, they are incorporating the latest in human-computer interfaces and digital controls to make current-generation spacecraft safer and easier to fly than ever.
Space.com caught up with NASA astronaut Dr. Stanley Love at Kennedy Space Center last month during the launch of Artemis 1 to discuss how he and others are working to design a spacecraft cockpit for the digital age.
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Love works in the Rapid Prototyping Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he helps develop the displays and controls for the Artemis program’s Orion spacecraft. The former space shuttle Atlantis crewmember and two-time spacewalker says that, based on the work he and his laboratory are doing, Orion is nearly ready for human crews. “We are now putting the finishing touches on all of the crew displays, the hand controllers, the switches and everything that the crew of Artemis 2 is going to use to control their Orion spacecraft,” Love said. “It’s a great job. I love it.”
A large part of this work is ensuring that the cockpit controls enable crews to make decisions quickly and with as much information as possible. “We’re going to do everything faster and more accurately.” Love said. “And it’s going to make spaceflight much, much safer and less error prone.”
A large part of this involves streamlining the controls inside Orion and making the cockpit much less cluttered, thanks to the advances in digital touchscreens that enable crews to activate pop-up windows rather than pore over checklists. “The shuttle had about 1,200 switches and circuit breakers in the cockpit. And there was a time when I knew what every single one of them did when I was training to be MS-2 [Mission Specialist 2] on the shuttle,” Love told Space.com. “The Orion has maybe 30 switches in the cockpit; all the rest of it is electronic digital controls.
“You’ll have a screen with a representation of the system you’re controlling with valves and power switches … You can highlight the item you want to command, press a button; a little window pops up with a list of commands, you select the command you want, and send it off to the vehicle.”
A significant reason for streamlining Orion’s commands and controls is the fact that NASA intends the spacecraft to one day travel far beyond the moon to Mars. Whereas it takes radio communications roughly one second to reach Earth from lunar orbit, it could take as long as 40 minutes for Mars-bound crews to communicate with mission controllers, Love said.
Orion has therefore been built with a high degree of autonomy, enabling the craft itself to make some of the decisions needed for deep space flight so that crews aren’t as reliant on mission controllers 51 million miles (82 million kilometers) away. “So much of the smarts of mission control, especially for things that become a problem quickly, we’re gonna have to build into the automation to make the flight segment autonomous, and Orion is a small step in that direction” Love said.
The former space shuttle Atlantis astronaut added that the autonomy built into Orion and other Artemis program components will only increase as NASA’s moon-to-Mars vision expands.
“Gateway is going to be more autonomous. We’re going to practice for Mars there,” Love told Space.com, referring to the small moon-orbiting space station that NASA plans to build in the next few years. “And then hopefully, when we’re ready to build that Mars ship, we can build systems that can operate on their own, even with a lot of failures, and serious failures, and handle things without having to have mission control hold your hand the whole time.”
Read more: The Artemis plan: Why NASA sees the moon as a stepping stone to Mars
Despite the high level of automation built into Orion, Love says he can’t foresee a time when the element of human control is removed from the spacecraft cockpit entirely. “Human spaceflight is interesting, because it has humans in it,” Love said. “And humans like to be in control of a thing that’s hurtling from one place to another at a very great rate of speed. And they like to be able to see outside, see what they’re doing, see where they’re going. So I think that’s always going to be a part of human spaceflight.
“And if that’s not interesting,” the astronaut added, “the Jet Propulsion Lab is a great place to work. The robots never want the control stick, and the robots never need a window.”
The Orion spacecraft launched on NASA’s Artemis 1 mission on Nov. 16 and is currently on its way back to Earth after successfully orbiting the moon and capturing some breathtaking images along the way. If all goes according to plan, Orion will splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California on Sunday (Dec. 11).