Almost two hours after NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley were the first people to launch into space on a private rocket, they were also the first to pilot a spacecraft using only touch control.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon ship avoids the familiar maze of manual buttons and switches found on older ships like Space Shuttle or Apollo command modules. Instead, Crew Dragon pilots have only three large touch panels in front of them and a few spare buttons at the bottom. Therefore, in the short time when they have to manually control the spacecraft, they do it using the interface in the style of a video game located on these screens. However, the voice communication of the crew with the ground, possibly with a view to increased reliability, was carried out through a rather large-sized wired microphone.
Benken and Hurley did a short test of this interface two hours after a successful launch, when SpaceX ordered them to manually control the Crew Dragon to make sure everything worked. The company broadcast a live test recording of the test, and although it consisted of just a few taps, it was surprising that the astronauts were changing the trajectory of their spacecraft using the same technology that smartphone users use for tweets, Instagram, email viewing, and so on.
It is also noteworthy that the user interface is really very similar to the online flight simulator that SpaceX released just two weeks ago. Then the company indicated that the simulator interface has the same controls that NASA astronauts use to manually pilot the SpaceX Dragon 2 spacecraft.
Testing the new interface seems to have been successful, although Bob Benken noticed that the image of the Earth from the thermal imaging camera disappeared for a short time when Doug Hurley was flying a spaceship. SpaceX recognized the flicker and later told astronauts that this was normal – the cameras had just turned on and had not yet reached “Thermal equilibrium”. And, as the announcers said on the air, the flight test was “Last serious task” for astronauts before docking, except for dinner. It can also be noted that Hurley, on the last frames of the video, used a small working tablet to photograph the ship’s touch screen.
It is assumed that most Crew Dragon maneuvers will take place automatically, so if everything goes according to plan, during the mission, the astronauts will not have to resort to manual control again. And although this new ship control method doesn’t look so impressive and doesn’t look like the interfaces from science fiction films, SpaceX Crew Dragon’s touch screens can definitely be called a big step forward.
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