The new full-color, flat panel Multifunction Electronic Display
Subsystem (MEDS) is shown in the cockpit of Atlantis. The "glass
cockpit" offers easy-to-read graphical views of key flight
indicators such as attitude display and mach speed.
Technology first used in military, commercial aircraft
When NASA astronaut Fred Gregory learned that the cockpit in
Shuttle Atlantis was slated for a total technology update, he
advised Shuttle managers to talk with the agency's aeronautics
experts. So it should be no surprise that Atlantis' new cockpit
looks a lot like a future airliner cockpit, with colorful
multi-function computer displays stretched from one side to the
other. The radical new look is an accurate reflection of the
cockpit's radical new capabilities.
Gregory, originally from NASA Langley and now NASA Associate
Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance, knew that Langley
had pioneered the "glass cockpit" concept in ground simulators and
demonstration flights in the NASA 737 flying laboratory. Based on
that work and a favorable response from industry customers, Boeing
had developed the first glass cockpits for production airliners. It
was an aviation success story.
And, now, what is good for modern airliners will also be good
for modern spaceships. The technology will make Shuttle Atlantis
much easier and safer to fly, according to Shuttle officials.
Scores of outdated electromechanical cockpit instruments and gauges
have given way to 11 full-color flat panel screens.
Not only does the new system improve crew/orbiter interaction
with easy-to-read, graphic portrayals of key flight indicators like
attitude, altitude and speed, but it also reduces the high cost of
maintaining obsolete systems. The system also provides greater
backup capability, weighs less and uses less power than the
For these reasons the people who fly and maintain the Shuttle
fleet eagerly awaited the first flight of Atlantis since it was
equipped with the new Multifunction Electronic Display System
(MEDS). That first flight -- to deliver supplies to the
International Space Station -- took place in May 2000.
Honeywell Space Systems, Phoenix, was instrumental in designing
and producing MEDS.
Astronauts will use the displays to navigate and land Atlantis.
The displays operate with the convenience and control of the most
advanced commercial and military flat-panel display technology
available today. In addition, the liquid crystal displays provide
unique performance capabilities that enhance mission safety.
Astronauts can easily read important flight data because light
sources, including the sun, produce no glare on the screen and the
display allows for clear viewing from positions at a wide range of
angles from the screen.
The MEDS is perhaps the most visible of several system-wide
improvements made to Atlantis during a 10-month major overhaul.
Other upgrades were in areas of Shuttle main engines, the new Super
Lightweight Tank, Integrated Vehicle Health Management System, and
the Checkout and Launch Control System.
Honeywell is under contract to Boeing North American to provide
the new displays for all four Shuttle orbiters.
What is a "Glass Cockpit?"
Why all future aircraft will have one
Modern "glass cockpits" like those in the Boeing 777, the F-117
stealth fighter and Shuttle Atlantis represent a revolution in the
way cockpits for aircraft and spacecraft are designed and built
today. The first hints of this revolution appeared in the 1970s
when flight-worthy cathode ray tube (CRT) screens began to replace
a few of the electromechanical displays, gauges and instruments
that had served so well for so long. These new "glass" instruments,
as few and as primitive as they were, gave the cockpit a distinctly
different look and suggested the name, "glass cockpit."
The revolution in cockpit design was born of both opportunity
and necessity. Those working to advance commercial airline
passenger service felt it first.
Writing in "Airborne Trailblazer: Two Decades with NASA
Langley's 737 Flying Laboratory," Lane Wallace said:
"Prior to the 1970s, air transport operations were not
considered sufficiently demanding to require advanced equipment
like electronic flight displays. The increasing complexity of
transport aircraft, the advent of digital systems and the growing
air traffic congestion around airports began to change that,
She added that the average transport aircraft in the mid-1970s
had more than 100 cockpit instruments and controls, and the primary
flight instruments were already crowded with indicators, crossbars,
and symbols. In other words, the growing number of cockpit elements
were competing for cockpit space and pilot attention.
What was needed, she explained, were displays that could process
the raw aircraft system and flight data into an integrated, easily
understood picture of the aircraft situation, position and
progress, not only in horizontal and vertical dimensions, but with
regard to time and speed, as well.
In response, engineers at NASA Langley Research Center worked
with key industry partners to develop and test electronic flight
display concepts, culminating in an all-important series of flights
to demonstrate a full glass cockpit system. Boeing loaned some of
its most promising engineers to the project. Rockwell Collins
turned the team's concepts into hardware.
The challenges were many and varied. In designing the
experimental system, the research team looked at what information
pilots needed to have and how it should be presented to them. One
unexpected challenge: Finding the right balance between what the
computerized system should manage and what the pilot should manage.
The result: A glass cockpit system with an autopilot that increased
safety by reducing pilot workload at peak times, yet kept the pilot
"in the loop" at all times to maintain situational awareness.
Realistic terminal area flights with the NASA Boeing 737 flying
laboratory generated a great deal of interest from airline pilots
and other key elements of the aviation industry, and helped state
the case for Federal Aviation Administration certification.
The success of the NASA-led glass cockpit work is reflected in
the total acceptance of electronic flight displays beginning with
the introduction of the Boeing 767 in 1982. Airlines and their
passengers, alike, have benefitted. Safety and efficiency of flight
have been increased with improved pilot understanding of the
airplane's situation relative to its environment. The cost of air
travel is less than it would be with the old technology and more
flights arrive on time.
The Department of Defense has adopted glass cockpit technology
to increase performance of its newest aircraft, from
fighter-interceptors to long-range bombers.
(For more information, call the NASA Langley Office of Public
Affairs at (757) 864-6124.)