After Hours

Geek Trivia: Shuffling the (flight) deck

What modern conventional aircraft's avionics are the basis for the flight control systems in the Space Shuttle-replacing Project Constellation space vehicles -- the Orion capsule and the Altair lander?

In 2010, the Space Shuttle program will conduct its final spaceflight, finally retiring the three-decades-old spaceplane and clearing the decks for cutting-edge human spacecraft technology — which is based on four-decades-old space tech. Welcome to Project Constellation, which is known colloquially as "Apollo on steroids" since it reverts NASA's manned spaceflight profile to the rocket-and-capsule paradigm that defined the agency before the Space Shuttle came along.

Don't take that to mean that Project Constellation will be using nothing but 1960s-era transistors and magnetic tape drives. While it's unlikely we'll ever see a return to the heady days of the Apollo Guidance Computer (which was arguably the most advanced portable computer ever built when it first went into space), it doesn't mean that Constellation won't be using some seriously modern tech.

The main crew vehicle for Constellation will be the Orion spacecraft, a manned crew capsule that will dock in orbit with other Constellation systems, including the proposed Altair landing vehicle, the latter of which is somewhat comparable to the Apollo Lunar Module. Orion, for its part, will be a vast improvement over Apollo capsules, not least because it will accommodate four to six crew members, rather than Apollo's three. As to specific technical advances in the Orion capsule:

  • An automated docking system similar to those on the Russian and European unmanned cargo vehicles that resupply the International Space Station.
  • A combination airbag/parachute landing system that will allow Orion to touch down over sea or land — just as the Russian Soyuz capsules do — rather than being limited to a sea landing, as was the case with previous American capsules.
  • A mixed nitrogen/oxygen in-flight atmosphere to decrease the likelihood of fire.
  • A zero-gravity "camping toilet" based on those aboard the ISS, eliminating the need for the infamous Apollo relief bags.

Of course, not every system improvement made between the Apollo and Orion capsules is based on that of other modern spacecraft. In fact, a critical component of both the Orion and the Altair vehicles is based on a conventional aircraft — the avionics suite, which will allow astronauts to actually pilot these space vehicles.

WHAT CONVENTIONAL AIRCRAFT'S AVIONICS WILL BE THE BASIS FOR THOSE IN NASA'S NEW ORION SPACECRAFT?

Get the answer.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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