NASA astronauts recently experienced what it will be like to launch into space aboard the new Orion spacecraft during the first ascent simulations since the space shuttles and their simulators were retired.
Ascent simulations are precise rehearsals of the steps a spacecraft’s crew will be responsible for – including things that could go wrong – during their climb into space. They can be generic and apply to any future deep space mission, or very specific to a launch that’s been planned down to the second. For now, Orion’s simulations fall into the first category, but practicing now helps ensure the team will have the systems perfected for the astronauts in any future mission scenario.
"Simulations like these provide valuable experience by giving astronauts and our operations team an early look at what going to deep space in Orion will be like," said Lee Morin, an astronaut and supervisor of Johnson’s rapid prototyping laboratory, who has been working on the Orion displays. "Rehearsing launch and ascent--two of the most challenging parts of Orion's mission -- also gives us an opportunity to work toward optimizing how the crew interacts with the spacecraft."
Designing a spacecraft’s cockpit for ease of use and efficiency is no easy task. Each space shuttle had 10 display screens, more than 1,200 switches, dials and gauges, plus hundreds of pounds of procedures printed on paper. Orion, which is designed for deep-space exploration and autonomous or piloted rendezvous and docking, will use new technology to distill all of that down to just three computer screens, each the size of a sheet of paper.
“It sounds promising and saves a lot of weight, but designing it is challenging,” said Jeff Fox, the Orion crew systems integration lead. “We don’t want the crew to have to search through a lot of dropdown menus when they need to quickly access key systems and information.”
It will take about eight minutes for Orion to get from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center to the altitude where the rocket’s main engines will cut off, the milestone that marks the spacecraft’s arrival in space. In that time, if everything goes as planned, the commander and pilot will have few actions to perform; if anything goes wrong, that quickly changes, and the crew must be able to quickly access all the relevant procedures and displays they need.
The Orion team has been working to develop ideas on how to make that possible, and has developed a working prototype that’s been installed in a life-sized Orion mockup at Johnson Space Center. But no one is better able to judge how well it works than an astronaut.
“No one knows how to fly Orion yet – the hardware doesn’t exist yet in some cases,” Morin said. “But these crews have a lot of flight experience and a lot of test flight experience. They can help us design the displays and build a better product.”
Over the course of two weeks, 10 crews of two astronauts apiece performed two normal launch simulations and two launch abort simulations inside the Orion mockup. As they made their way through the various actions they were called on to perform, engineers took careful notes of every comment they made and question they asked. That data will be evaluated as engineers continue to fine-tune the design and build requirements for the displays and controls.
In a few months, the same crews will come back and try a new and improved version, and the process will repeat itself as Orion’s mission requirements evolve and the vehicle design is refined. In the end, the engineers and astronauts will rest assured that the system will work exactly as it should. Orion’s data and software will be made available to NASA’s commercial partners for use in vehicles being built to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Although the final product will be different because the vehicles travel to unique destinations, NASA’s partners can choose to use it and build off of Orion’s foundation.
“It’s very rewarding work, knowing the displays we are creating and testing now will be what future astronauts will be looking at as they rendezvous with an asteroid, orbit the moon, and even travel to Mars,” Morin said. “Getting this right is key to making Orion and other future vehicles safer and easier to use.”
Orion’s first crewed launch, Exploration Mission-2, is scheduled for 2021, when NASA plans to send two astronauts to an asteroid in lunar orbit, with the help of NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. It will be the farthest humans have traveled in more than 40 years, and Orion will ultimately allow us to go even farther, including to destinations such as Mars.