Exclusive: A Closer Look at NASA's Orion Glass Cockpit

After 10 years of evolution, the prototypes of NASA’s Orion “glass cockpit” are finally reaching maturity.

The cockpit, a first for a NASA spacecraft, will be a critical part of Orion’s maiden manned mission in six years and distinguishes itself by virtue of its ability to eliminate a small mountain of switches and heavy wiring. “The Space Shuttle had about 2,000 switches and controls, in addition to all of its displays,” noted Dr. Lee Morin, astronaut and lead crew interface for NASA’s Orion Cockpit Rapid Prototyping Lab (RPL), during a recent visit to NASA by Design News. “During dynamic flight, about 1,247 of those were available to the crew. But that will change with the glass cockpit.”

Indeed, the glass cockpit represents a monumental change for NASA and its design engineers. Instead of the well-known cornucopia of switches, Orion’s capsule will employ six flat screen monitors about 20 inches from the noses of the astronauts, who will lie strapped beneath them. The monitors are called a glass cockpit because most of the spacecraft’s instruments are represented as images on them. All but 56 of the 2,000 switches will be transformed into software icons.

 

 

”The goal was to build a cockpit user interface – a dashboard – that would allow the crew to control the spacecraft on these deep space missions,” Morin said.

Creating the glass cockpit has been a decade-long labor of love for engineers in the RPL. The design team prototyped hardware and software for the avionics, “drove” the prototype cockpits on simulators, evaluated displays and user interfaces, and corrected deficiencies. Then, they repeated this process again and again for 10 years.

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Key to the process was the presence of astronauts at the Johnson Space Center. “We’ve had about 50 astronauts in here,” Morin said, referring to the RPL. ”Human factors people assign them to do different tasks and then we get their feedback.”

To speed the evolution of the glass cockpit, RPL’s team built many of the prototype parts themselves, rather than purchasing them off the shelf from vendors. The team built parts in a 3D printer and did subsequent machining. Morin, who keeps a four-axis milling machine in his garage, cut many of the hardware components, including mounts for the cockpit displays. He also used Arduino boards to prototype some of the display software. “These parts don’t have to fly in space,” he told Design News. “We can do it economically, get it just the way we want it, and produce it very quickly.”

 

 

In some cases, engineers built interface devices that will eventually be used aboard Orion’s space flights. One such part, known as the Cursor Control Device (CCD), will serve as an alternative to a computer mouse. Initially starting out as a box, the CCD was gradually transformed to a steam iron shape before evolving into a hand-friendly plastic blob containing rocker switches and castle switches. The current iteration of the CCD is expected to reside on the left side of each seat, near the astronauts’ knees. It will enable astronauts to move their cursors around the screens and select control icons.

Morin said that NASA engineers considered a wide variety of alternatives before settling on the current shape. “We had things that looked like motorcycle grips and Klingon battle swords,” he said. “There were some pretty wild-looking designs, but we eventually gravitated toward the blob.”

To test it for every imaginable human factor, a NASA branch chief even brought in his 9-year-old daughter. “He explained how it worked and asked if she was able to turn it on,” Morin recalled. “She did it right away. That was the acid test.”

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The current evolution of the glass cockpit uses three large DU-1310 screens from Honeywell International, Inc. It also employs electronic procedures software (dubbed “eProc”) that will enable the team to eliminate hundreds of pounds of paper manuals from the Orion’s storage space.

Team members say that refinements on the Orion capsule will continue, but they don’t expect major changes at this point. “We’re approaching it with an intent that we don’t make lots and lots of changes,” Stuart McClung, NASA’s crew and service module functional area manager, told Design News. “There’s an expense to keeping a design team in place.”

Still, the journeys ahead continue to provide motivation for engineers to bring the glass cockpit as close to perfection as possible. “We know that these are the screens that the first humans who go to Mars will be looking at, as that mission unfolds in the decades ahead,” Morin said.

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

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