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.


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The avionics suite from the Boeing 787 Dreamliner will be ported to the Orion and Altair spacecraft, though don’t take that to mean that a 787 pilot will be qualified to fly either of these yet-to-be-built space vehicles.

The Orion and the Altair will be the first NASA capsules with a so-called glass cockpit, which is aviation slang for an entirely electronic instrument system, with no analog readouts or gauges on the flight deck. These digital instruments from the 787 — both the general hardware and software — will be adapted to the Orion and the Altair, presumably making the controls of either craft look more like the bridge of the starship Enterprise-D, rather than the somewhat more analog original Space Shuttle design.

(To be fair, the Space Shuttles were eventually retrofitted with glass cockpit systems starting in 2000. Atlantis was the first Space Shuttle to fly with the system, as it did for STS-101. Only Challenger, which was destroyed in 1986, never received the upgrade.)

The advantage of a glass cockpit is, in large part, one of simplification. Rather than requiring multiple redundant mechanical gauges, a computer display-based avionics system can access multiple redundant instruments with a single readout. Moreover, the 787 avionics suite was chosen in part because it was dual-fault tolerant, meaning that three versions on any instrument would have to fail before the pilot was deprived of flight data.

The 787’s electronics systems aren’t without critics, of course, particularly since that aircraft’s in-flight passenger network (which would provide travelers with airborne Internet access) is not physically separate from the glass cockpit systems. Thus, a passenger could hypothetically hack the network and assume control of the 787 from the passenger cabin. Presumably, this will not be a problem for the Orion flight crews.

That not just some aeronautically advantageous adaptation; it’s a flight deck fancifying flash of futuristic Geek Trivia.

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