NASA simulates ‘extreme failure scenario’ to test Orion spacecraft controls

NASA’s Orion crew capsule is currently on-target for its next unmanned test flight in 2018 as part of the next-generation Space Launch System (SLS). When astronauts are finally on-board the Orion, NASA wants to make sure they have the best control and information software possible, so the agency is currently running a series of Orion simulations on the ground to get this revolutionary crew display system up and running.

The first test run of Orion’s display systems took place early this month in the Rapid Prototyping Lab (RPL) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. That’s where engineers are designing the controls that astronauts will use to pilot the spacecraft. It’s vital that NASA understands how the display systems it’s developing for Orion work with ground control’s systems. This is more vital than ever for Orion, which is intended to carry humans far beyond Earth’s local neighborhood.

Orion’s controls will have to be optimized for astronauts to manage all aspects of the craft on a long-term mission. If Orion is eventually sent to Mars, as is NASA’s eventual goal, it will be too far away for the ground team to assist with managing the spacecraft in real time. That means a highly-efficient setup is necessary for Orion. The Space Shuttle had more than 2000 physical switches, buttons, and dials, but it was designed in the 1970s. With modern interface technology, NASA has managed to condense Orion’s control system down to three dynamic displays with custom software.

Orion spacecraft, in space (render)

The test several weeks ago was aimed at simulating an “extreme failure” on the spacecraft and how that incident is relayed to ground control. There were two “astronauts” manning the controls of the imaginary Orion capsule, as well as a flight director and control team on the ground. In this scenario, Orion’s power systems have failed, leaving the crew in serious trouble without functional environmental controls. The team worked through how to troubleshoot various systems to get the spacecraft back up and running before any of the pretend astronauts could come to pretend harm.

NASA still has some time to get the on-board software just right. The first flight of Orion was in late 2014 when it successfully orbited the Earth. The next test flight in 2018 will see Orion make an unmanned trip all the way to the moon and back. This “Exploration Mission 1” will also be the first time Orion is launched by the SLS rocket. The first manned mission is currently slated for 2021 or 2022 when four astronauts will use to to orbit the moon. That will be the first time humans have ventured so far from Earth since the Apollo days.

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