Technical Article

The Glass Cockpit: The Story of Display Technologies in Space Shuttles

January 10, 2021 by Steve Taranovich

In this final part of the Glass Cockpit series, we look at how displays have reached their current iteration in Space X shuttles.

In this series on the importance of displays and interfaces in aerospace, we've talked about the basics of touchscreen displays and looked at the displays in the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Now we'll culminate in a look at the "glass cockpit" in space applications, a term used to describe the digital displays (especially LCDs) and interfaces as it shifted away from purely analog interfaces such as dials.


The “Glass Cockpit”

With that, let’s look at the “glass cockpit” with touch screens, for space travel. There are no concerns regarding “bogies”/enemy aircraft, air and ground targets, or threats for the pilot in space, unlike the F-18 case. The Space Shuttle Atlantis actually had a “glass cockpit”.

My first experience of a “glass cockpit” was during a visit I made to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. I met Former Astronaut Lee Morin, M.D., PH.D. (CAPTAIN, U.S. NAVY, RET) now heading up the NASA Crew Interface Rapid Prototype Lab (RPL) for the Orion program. Figure 5.

The RPL has the expertise at using immediate feedback and close collaboration between crew, contractors, and NASA partners to successfully apply the rapid prototyping model.


Figure 5. Former astronaut Lee Morin telling me about the three screen “Glass cockpit” design for Orion (Image from Loretta Taranovich)


Figure 6. Lee Morin discusses ergonomic design with the optimum distance and angle of the display for the astronauts who will be using it (Image from Loretta Taranovich)

The average aircraft in the mid-70s had over 100 instruments/controls in the cockpit! The primary flight instruments had indicators, symbols, and crossbars crowding the panel in front of the pilots. This necessitated a change in which displays would process the raw aircraft system and flight data in a manner in which the pilots could view a simpler view of the aircraft situation, position, and progress.

In response to this situation, NASA Langley Research Center worked with their industry partners to create a ‘glass cockpit” that would increase safety by reducing the pilot’s workload at peak times, as well as aid the pilot in maintaining situational awareness. Boeing loaned some experienced engineers to the project and Rockwell Collins made the hardware. The “glass cockpit” was the right balance between what a computerized system could manage and what the pilot could manage.


Figure 7. Orion’s computer system and “glass cockpit” is modeled after the Boeing 777 design. NASA reuses this existing, flight-tested aircraft system to be cost-effective, which makes sense and aids in remaining within budget constraints, while still maintaining safety and functionality for astronauts in space. Image courtesy of NASA


Enter Space-X with the Crew Dragon Controls

The Crew Dragon touchscreens are a pretty solid system. In spite of early hesitation about a touchscreen system, SpaceX worked closely with many astronauts to create an interface that was reliable and also worked well for the crew, who would be the ones using the touchscreen. 

There was a great deal of testing and evaluation that went into the ergonomics of the placement of what's on the displays and how those displays are presented to the crew. Crew Dragon Demo-2 astronauts worked with SpaceX and refined the way that they would interface with the touchscreen and the way touch is actually registered on the display in order to be able to fly it cleanly and not make mistakes in touching it.

Astronaut Matthew Dominick, in his All About Circuits/Moore’s Lobby podcast, reenforced this as he commented on the commercial space sector, “The commercial guys put the CAD/design guys right next to the factory floor. The factory floor people can then walk over to the engineer who designed something and come over to look at the situation to see how to build/assemble this better”.

This is a new era in space technology that focuses on the safety and efficiency of astronauts, 21st century explorers, as they journey to the International Space Station (ISS) or to “boldly go” to other worlds out there.


Featured image, the cockpit of space shuttle Discovery, from NASA.