Astronauts Train In Orion Spacecraft Simulator
September 27, 2013

Simulating The New Orion Spacecraft

Michael Harper for – Your Universe Online

As NASA prepares for a 2021 launch of the new Orion spacecraft, astronauts have begun their training in an Orion-based simulator. These training sessions are the first since NASA retired the previous space shuttle simulators. The Orion Exploration Mission-1 will carry humans farther into space than they’ve been for over 40 years, propelled by the Space Launch System, NASA’s newest heavy-lift rocket. As the Orion isn’t yet complete, astronauts have to rely on simulator training and computer screens to prepare for the monumental mission.

NASA isn’t taking any chances with this mission, either; they’re thoroughly training the astronauts to handle any circumstance; both routine and disastrous. The computer screens in Orion are of note and will offer a new design and layout that will make navigating the menus and piloting the Orion easier and more intuitive. The Orion astronauts will need as much training on this system as they will the actual hardware of the spacecraft, say NASA engineers. For now, the astronauts in training are taking a broad and generic approach to training, preparing for anything that could potentially go wrong.

"Simulations like these provide valuable experience by giving astronauts and our operations team an early look at what going to deep space in Orion will be like," explained Lee Morin, an astronaut and supervisor at Johnson Space Center's rapid prototyping laboratory. JSC is responsible for making the computer displays that will be installed in Orion.

"Rehearsing launch and ascent--two of the most challenging parts of Orion's mission -- also gives us an opportunity to work toward optimizing how the crew interacts with the spacecraft."

The space-age vehicle will feature a stripped down, yet more powerful, computer system from previous spacecraft. For instance, early space shuttles had as many as 10 display screens and 1,200 dials, gauges and switches that astronauts had to navigate through to complete even the simplest of tasks. Should they have any questions, NASA equipped the shuttles with hundreds of pounds of printed manuals.

Orion will be quite different. The cockpit will contain only three screens, each the size of a piece of paper, and each will allow the astronauts to perform their maneuvers. Part of the difficulty of designing these screens and menus, and part of the difficulty of carrying out the training procedures, is making sure the entire process is both powerful and streamlined. Though there are some tasks that will be relatively routine, such as the ascent into space, other outliers need to be considered and, when they’re encountered in simulations, engineers will have to build a way for astronauts to navigate their way through it. The fact that the spacecraft isn’t yet complete further complicates these issues.

“No one knows how to fly Orion yet – the hardware doesn’t exist yet in some cases,” said Morin.

“But these crews have a lot of flight experience and a lot of test flight experience. They can help us design the displays and build a better product.”

Earlier this spring, NASA ran through mock capsule simulations wherein the parachutes didn’t deploy correctly. As the capsule was released from 25,000 feet in the air, NASA simulated what would happen during two types of parachute failures. Despite these intentional failures, the Orion capsule was able to make a safe landing.