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Game On: NASA Advances Virtual Cockpit for Moon Landings
For the next generation of space explorers, landing on the moon or Mars might feel similar to playing an out-of-this-world video game.

NASA engineers are testing and fine-tuning software that combines a pilot’s cockpit view with preloaded imagery to provide a complete visual of the pilot’s external surroundings. In the future, NASA astronauts may use this technology to fly and land spacecraft. The system takes live video from outside the spacecraft and blends it with other imagery sources such as satellite photos, heads-up displays and topographical maps. The software then projects a composite image on flat-panel displays in front of the pilot. The combined imagery displays would allow the pilot to see landing areas, flight paths, keep-out areas and terrain information even if the view from the cockpit offers little or no visibility.

“Imagine driving down a foggy road in your car," said Jeff Fox, team lead for the project at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. "The system could project a virtual reality-type image in front of you to show you the lines on the road, any obstacles in the way and even the speed limit or other warning signs. This would increase your situational awareness immensely."

Virtual cockpit
View footage from the research aircraft during the recent flight demonstration of the Advanced Cockpit Evaluation System.
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NASA pilots and engineers began work on the Advanced Cockpit Evaluation System software in 2004 with two private companies, Rapid Imaging Software and Aerospace Applications North America. The system recently was demonstrated for NASA’s Constellation program using a research aircraft at Ellington Field outside of Houston. Several research pilots and astronaut pilots were aboard. To simulate a lunar approach and landing, the software engineers configured the system to display a lunar black sky with landing corridors, keep-out zones, targets and other flight data on one of the monitors. The other two monitors showed a blend of video from outside the test aircraft and synthetic imagery.

"This was a terrific opportunity to see this type of technology in a flight environment, and it demonstrates the inexpensive nature of the system, which uses off-the-shelf computer monitors and cameras and is completely adaptable." Fox said.

The system could be used in NASA’s mission to return to the moon: in the astronauts’ lunar lander and lunar rover, in helmets for spacewalks and in rendezvous operations with the Orion crew spacecraft. The possible uses of such a system are vast, but one thing is sure: when NASA astronauts explore the moon, they will be able to visualize orbital and landing operations in a way that never has been used.

As NASA engineers continue to develop this technology, young video game enthusiasts should continue to hone their skills at home. One day, the joystick in their hand just might be piloting the Orion crew capsule through space or guiding the Altair lunar lander to a safe resting place on the moon.
Josh Byerly
NASA's Johnson Space Center