Son of Apollo
The next lunar lander will be a giant leap ahead of the first.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- Air & Space magazine, May 2006
Illustrations by Paul DiMare
(Page 7 of 8)
That's way too old school for Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Automation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Under contract to the nearby Draper Laboratory, Cummings has come up with designs of cockpit displays for the next generation of lunar landers. Both Draper and MIT are experienced in this area, having designed the guidance system and computers for the Apollo program, and Draper did the new work under a grant from NASA's exploration office.
The "glass cockpit" that Cummings envisions is light-years beyond Apollo's clunky switches and dials, beyond even current military fighters. The lunar astronauts would see an artificial view of their landing site from the surface as well as from above. Easy-to-interpret displays will show their trajectory, possible hazards, and remaining fuel. Computers would synthesize all the information, leaving the pilot to intervene only if something went wrong.
If the system is designed right, says Cummings, "anybody, anywhere, anytime should be able to control the lunar lander." The operator wouldn't even have to be on board. "You do not need 1,000 carrier landings or the Right Stuff to be a good lunar lander pilot," she maintains.
Lest anyone think this opinion comes from some pale computer geek who's never been closer to pilots than Row 12 of the red-eye to Boston, a brief word on Professor Cummings' background: Before she got her Ph.D., she was one of the first female naval aviators to fly the F/A-18 Hornet. Today she spends much of her time on the problem of controlling networked unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Because NASA also wants the LSAM to be able to land with no crew on board, delivering supplies in "cargo mode," Cummings says the agency's experience with remote-controlled landings on Mars is as relevant as the exploits of the Apollo astronauts. Her fear is that astronauts won't stand for some ground controller "piloting" the LSAM from afar. The same tension exists between Air Force pilots and UAVs, she says. "I was a fighter pilot. I was the most elite of the elite. And we're the ones who are most resistant to this change."
On this issue, Dave Scott, the Apollo 15 commander, comes down somewhere in the middle. "Airliners have had auto-land capability for a long time, but they still have the pilot up in front," he says. "So I would say if you get a lunar lander with an auto-land capability, you're still going to have the pilot looking out the window."
The question of who will pilot the LSAM doesn't need to be settled today, though. Right now Connolly has his hands full with big-picture design questions, particularly those that affect near-term development of the CEV and launch vehicles.
So Connolly consults with those who have been in his shoes-his predecessors, now retired from Grumman. "They are thrilled that NASA is coming back and talking to them," he says. "They are probably as excited today about going back to the moon as they were when they built this machine."