Son of Apollo

The next lunar lander will be a giant leap ahead of the first.

Living and working in the most remote office in the solar system, the next moon-bound astronauts will rely on a 21st century lunar lander with conveniences only dreamt of by veterans of Apollo. (Illustrations by Paul DiMare)
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One feature Runco is especially keen to include in a lunar module is windows. "You're talking to the windows-in-space guy," he says, and he's not joking. On the shuttle, where astronauts tend to eat on the run, he once made a point to spend a luxurious 40 minutes eating his spaghetti dinner while looking out the windows of the world's highest rooftop restaurant.

Because glass is heavy, the weight-conscious Apollo LM engineers could afford only tiny triangular portholes. LSAM's designers can probably do better than that, but will they? "Engineers reluctantly put in windows," laments Runco. "[And] the first things to go are the things for the crew."

But windows are more than just entertainment: Lunar pilots will surely want to see outside while landing on the moon. That is, if they're the ones actually doing the piloting -- which is a matter of some debate.

Here's how they did it in Apollo: The two astronauts stood during their descent to the lunar surface. Early in the landing sequence, the LM's computer handled all the necessary course corrections, even managing the dwindling fuel supply. Radar on the lander kept the computer updated on its position.

Then, just a few minutes before touchdown, the LM pitched over so the astronauts could look out the window and get their first good look at the landing site. If the commander liked what he saw, he could stay with the course the computer had chosen. He could nudge the path slightly. Or he could take full manual control and fly the landing himself, as Neil Armstrong did on Apollo 11, when he saw the Eagle heading for what looked to him like a field of boulders.

The Apollo landings were a joint effort between primitive (though then state-of-the-art) computers and very skilled pilots, and all six missions came down safely. On more than one landing, however, the LM came down in a crater, so it ended up tilting at a slight angle. Nothing too serious, but that may have been luck. Shortly after his dust-blind Apollo 12 landing, Pete Conrad told mission control he had come in guided only by instruments, adding: "It's a good thing we [trained in] a simulator." Weeks later, during his debriefing, he admitted, "I couldn't tell whether there was a crater down there or not."

When it comes to knowing their landing sites ahead of time, the LSAM pilots should have their Apollo forefathers beat hands down. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, scheduled to launch in 2008, will have long since mapped the moon's entire surface. Potential landing sites should be mapped to a resolution of a foot or two. Additionally, robotic landers may have photographed every rock and gully in the vicinity before the astronauts arrive. And advanced sensors on the LSAM, including laser ranging devices, could offer real-time hazard detection that cuts the chances of coming down in a bad spot to practically zero.

Connolly agrees that the tools will greatly improve landing. And he still pictures an astronaut at the controls in those final moments before touchdown. Landing on the moon is "very hard to do automatically," he says. "It's something, however, that pilots are very good at. In fact, picking out level, safe landing sites is sort of the whole idea of piloting."

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.

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