June 11, 2020

The Amazing Transformation of the Flight Deck Interface for Spacecraft

On May 30, 2020, NASA and SpaceX launched the first humans into space from American soil since 2011. The user interface of Crew Dragon was all touchscreen-based. I thought this was really wild and for some reason felt really futuristic. I'm sure when the public first view the interfaces of the Apollo spacecraft and the space shuttle, they thought along the same lines. Let's take a look back and see how far the spacecraft flight deck interface has changed over the years.

Apollo 11 Flight Deck
Apollo 11 (1969)

There are hundreds of controls and displays located in the cabin of the Apollo 11 command module. A majority of these are on the main display console, which faces the crew and extends on both sides of them. The console is the heart of the command module: on it are the switches, dials, meters, circuit breakers, and other controls and displays through which the crew will control the spacecraft and monitor its performance.

All important and commonly used functionality was within reach of the crew from their seats. The main display console was arranged to provide for the assigned duties of the crew. These duties fell into the categories of commander, command module pilot, and lunar module pilot, occupying the left, center, and right, respectively. Other displays and controls were placed throughout the module, including interfaces that did not need frequent attention or were used during parts of the mission when the crew was not required to be in their seats.

Discovery Flight Deck
Discovery (1984)

Like the Apollo 11 command module, the space shuttle cockpit had over one thousand switches, buttons, and joysticks to operate the systems and spacecraft. With functionality zones built into the console for the commander on the left and the pilot on the right.

I thought this quote was an interesting look at the user experience (both from the engineers/designers and the users/astronauts of the space shuttle's controls:

"This unusual-looking switch controls the nose wheel steering and has a piece of plastic tubing attached to simply make it easier to trigger. During the maiden voyage of Atlantis in October, 1985, commander Karol J. Bobko found the thick gloves of his pressurized suit made it challenging to quickly throw the switch during landing. This piece of tubing was both playfully and helpfully installed by those processing the shuttle after the mission. "

Dragon 2020 Flight Deck
Dragon Endeavour (2020)

Dragon’s operation is very different from the space shuttle. The Dragon module is almost completely controlled via touchscreen computers! The spacecraft only has a few buttons that are to trigger emergency operations. The entire module can be flown autonomously with manual control as an option. The spacesuit's gloves were specially designed to function with the touchscreens. Dragon's displays provide real-time information on anything from its position in space, to possible destinations, and the environment onboard. A simple tap on a screen is capable of igniting Dragon’s space thrusters to slightly alter the craft's direction. Both astronauts collaborated with SpaceX to design interior controls and display features.

“I think it was challenging for us, and for them at first, to work through all those different design issues, but we got to a point where the vehicle, from a manual flying standpoint, with a touchscreen, it flies very well,” Commander Doug Hurley said. “You kind of interface with the vehicle such that the cameras are displayed on that same display, so you’re seeing the docking target, for example, when you’re maneuvering close to space station right in the same exact place, you’re looking to fly the vehicle.

The difference is you’ve got to be very deliberate when you’re putting an input in with the touchscreen relative to what you would do with a stick because … when you’re flying an airplane, for example, if I push the stick forward, it’s going to go down. I have to actually make a concerted effort to do that with a touchscreen, if that makes sense. So, it’s a little bit different way of doing it, but the design, in general, has worked out very well,” Hurely explained before the launch.

You’re more of a monitor of all the systems, and you’re not using all your brainpower to actually fly the vehicle,” Hurley added. “That being said, the vehicle has manual capability in several phases, and we will certainly test that out because it’s just prudent to have an automated vehicle that has a backup capability manually in order to do what you need to do to complete the mission,” Hurley said. “Hopefully, it will make our job easier."

Dragon 2020 Flight Deck
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