How will astronauts control the Orion spaceship?

NASA’s Orion spacecraft – set for a test flight on Thursday – is to include a touchscreen-enabled 'glass cockpit' that will save on fuel.

If it’s good enough for a Boeing 787, it’s gotta be good enough for space, right? NASA’s Orion spacecraft — poised for its first uncrewed flight on Thursday (Dec. 4) — will eventually include a “glass cockpit” that will make it easier for astronauts to step across the Solar System, based on thepassenger jet avionics.

Why go for glass over switches? The huge benefit is weight (which means less fuel expended to heft the spacecraft), according to the NASA video above.

“One big benefit is the weight savings because you don’t need to have a physical switch,” said astronaut Lee Morin, who was involved in the design, in the video. “With a physical switch, not only is there the weight of the switch, but you also have the weight of the wire to the switch, and you have to have the weight of the circuity that takes that wire and feeds it into the vehicle computers.”

This means that the new spacecraft will sport only 60 physical switches for the astronauts to control (the video did not specify what they would do), which could also be simpler in terms of usability.

The cockpit, however, is not quite ready for prime-time. Although Exploration Test Flight-1 (ETF-1) will have most of the Orion systems included in the crew portion, the glass cockpit will not be among them, according to the flight’s press kit. “The only crew module systems that will not fly on this vehicle are the environmental control and life support system; and the crew support systems such as displays, seats and crew-operable hatches,” it reads.

But there will be more testing ahead. Orion is slated to run its next flight in about 2017 or 2018, which could include a more complete spacecraft at that time. Meanwhile, people are already starting to gather for the test flight, which will see the deepest space exploration by a crew capsule since the Apollo era. Orion will roar into space and return for a high-speed re-entry to make sure that heat shield works when NASA sticks people inside.

The goal, eventually, is to bring astronauts all over the solar system — to an asteroid, the Moon or even Mars. Check out this recent step-by-step animation of how this test flight is going to go forward. Universe Today’s Ken Kremer will be on site for the historic day.

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

Originally published on Universe Today.

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