America’s Next Spaceship

Designed to go where no man has gone before.

Meet Orion, a son-of-Apollo space capsule that, like the family wagon, will be comfortable on long trips and will still be around when the kids learn to drive. (Paul Dimare)
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Orion is being designed from the start to be operated, if the need arises, as a depressurized cabin. The requirement for the astronauts to operate while wearing pressure suits influences everything in the design of the cabin, from the size of the hatch to the location of the seats (they need to be pushed a bit farther apart). Extensive suit studies were played out in the mockup “so we could understand reachability,” says Holcomb. “Are things easy to see? Can you adjust the lighting? What are you running into, what are you catching on?”


A key moment in sci-fi film history, described by designers Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel in their book Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, may have had an influence on the look of future spacecraft (and consumer electronics). It happened in the late 1980s “[w]hen Star Trek replaced controls based on mechanical, lighted buttons in the original TV series with the backlit touch panels in its first sequel series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The authors report that the production designer, rather than being visionary, simply did not have the money to create individually installed, lighted buttons, so instead he simply used backlit plastic film with controls printed on them—which, curiously enough, turned out to be prophetic of today’s touchscreen technology.

We had come to associate space travel, at least in science fiction, with complex operating environments: astronauts surrounded by banks of switches and indicator lights. In the 1979 Alien, a visit to “Mother,” the operating system of the Nostromo, entails sitting in a capsule-like room, entirely enveloped in a vast array of twinkling lights that do not seem to convey actual information—other than that the computer is (presumably) thinking.

In real-live spaceflight, the environments have hardly been less complex. NASA astronaut and space shuttle veteran Lee Morin, wearing a blue jumpsuit with a “Mach 25” badge, tells me that the shuttle cockpit had 1,249 switches. “There were approximately 2,000 for the whole vehicle,” he says.

On Orion, almost all of those switches will have disappeared, or, as Morin says, will have “gone onto the glass,” the glass being one of the three flat-panel displays (ringed by, yes, switches) mounted at the astronauts’ eye level. Morin has been working on such displays since 2005. “Apollo was a brilliant cockpit,” he says, “but everything there basically had one use—a physical gauge, a meter. We were not going to be able to do much with that approach.”

Rather than replicating instruments in graphic form on a screen, Orion will have a sophisticated system, dubbed “eProc” (for electronic procedures), that will automatically bring up the relevant display page for the procedure the crew is working on. There will be switches for “a few emergency things,” he says, but without the banks of controls, the cabin will be much visually cleaner (and lighter). Three screens, but four astronauts? The “result of a long optimization process,” he says, balancing weight, power, and the crew’s ability to reach controls. “When we went from four to three screens,” he says, “we canted these outboard ones down 10 to 12 degrees to facilitate cross cockpit viewing.” Orion could also have a crew of only a commander and a pilot. A joystick helps during moments in flight when reaching the screen would be difficult.

The old paper flight manuals (all 250 pounds of them) will be jettisoned. While Morin concedes that switches and analog manuals have their virtues—blindfold a pilot and he can still locate a cockpit switch by muscle memory—he says the new system can reduce workload and improve coordination. “When I flew, I had four checklists velcroed to my thighs, just for nominal entry,” he says. “Now picture the off-nominal scenario: All of a sudden you have to do it in a different way because you don’t have enough fuel, or you have to do the deorbit burn on one engine. You have to do that in the next 30 seconds or you’re in real trouble. You have to get everyone on the same page. I have to flip switches at the same time with that guy. So it’s all bang, bang, bang. Here there’s less of that coordination between people and coordination between books.” What is key for Orion, says Morin, is bringing down the “training footprint.” Unlike the shuttle, with its trained pilots, “flying Orion is just a little part of your job. You might operate Orion, go somewhere to a habitation module or [to a halo orbit in deep space]—three months later, now it’s time to get back in here and fly.” While Orion’s reentry will be more automated than the shuttle’s, Morin says there are still critical tasks that “astronauts wouldn’t have been training on two weeks earlier.” The goal is to make it easier. Says Morin, the “less quirky stuff you have to remember not to do,” the better.

While it is not hard to see the influence of wider consumer technology in the new screen-led environment, it is not a simple matter of installing consumer-grade equipment. As I find myself on my back for the second time—this time in NASA’s mid-fidelity Orion mockup—John McCullough, Orion’s Vehicle Integration Manager, tells me that the capsule’s potentially depressurized status changes the equation. “If that hatch is open, all your electronics have to be able to function in zero pressure and no air. You can’t air-cool your electronics,” he says. Space is cold, but electronics produce heat; you can hear your computer’s fan running to cool it off. But fans don’t work in a vacuum; instead, the engineers will use cold plates that circulate liquids in a loop for cooling. This is not a new problem, McCullough says. Apollo electronics had to operate under the same conditions. Orion is designed to withstand multiple depressurization-repressurization cycles.


The famous designer Charles Eames once said, “Design depends largely on constraints.” Perhaps nowhere is that more true than in the unforgiving, exacting, bizarre environs of space, where missions are defined by the limits of technology, amounts of life-giving “consumables,” and human physiognomic capacity. Spacecraft design starts conservative, and designers progress by seeing what can be taken away: Less (weight) is more (mission). “In the last design cycle we’ve taken out over 4,000 pounds,” says McCullough. Some of this involves rethinking entire systems, like the strut-supported crew seats required for terrestrial landing; some of it comes from working creatively with what you have, like using the mass of the crew to function as ballast, or using clothing as a packing material. But the whole process is integrated. On one end, improvements in the astronaut’s gloves enabled more buttons to be placed around the command screens. On the other, McCullough notes, the Space Launch System rocket is being built at the same time. The requirements interact, mesh or clash, and change.

The crew is part of that process, and the design is driven by questions about them, says McCullough. “If you lose a crew member, are you able to take care of one another? If I lose contact with this vehicle, the crew has to pilot themselves back. Those are the things you don’t have to worry about in low Earth orbit.” As we rest on our backs, gazing into the screens that may one day display Martian landing procedures, McCullough says, “It’s a part of growing up, humanity growing up and stretching out. To be able to say ‘I’m not tethered to the Earth anymore.’ ” Orion is being designed to break the tether.

About Tom Vanderbilt

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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