Flying to the ISS using 3 Tabs in Chrome

At the dawn of the World Wide Web who would have ever thought that someday space ships would be piloted from a web browser? Watching all the SpaceX launches got me thinking about this point quite a lot…

As aerospace technology evolved over the last century accelerated in part by two World Wars, vehicles became ever more complex and so did the requirements for operating these vehicles. Whether it was a vehicle confined to the atmosphere or one that could truly escape the surly bonds of earth, its almost a given that the complexity of the flight deck evolved as a function of technology advancement at the time.

To understand why that is the case, we need to go back to the early days of aviation where every successful flight was arguably a successful test flight. Every time something went wrong some new process or feature was added and often this resulted in the addition of systems to aircraft. These systems would require new processes and ever increasing sets of controls and instruments to operate. Further advancements such as the gas turbine, autopilot and other technologies complicated things further adding layer upon layer of sub systems that needed to be managed.

Towards the middle of the last century the situation got so bad that the pilot alone could not handle all the systems on moderate sized aircraft. In the absence of technology to automate the complexity the Flight Engineer role was created. The Flight Engineer was responsible for monitoring the instruments and operating all the controls that kept an aircrafts systems running so the pilot could focus on what pilots were supposed to do in other words actually flying the aircraft.

Ironically the Flight Engineer’s controls were often more complex than those of the actual pilot. Take a look at the Flight Engineer control panel of an older generation Boeing 747 as just one example. Intimidating is an understatement.

Due to the limitations of electrical engineering at the time this remained the status quo until the advent of solid state circuits and the resultant digitization in aviation that led to the eventual automation of many of the systems. The Flight Engineer’s role became less prominent and eventually became redundant in the 1980’s. At the same time we had advances in display technology that resulted in so called “glass cockpits” that are synonymous with modern aviation. Analog gauges were converted to widgets on a LCD display and information could be condensed and grouped into pages so that not all information needed to be displayed at the same time.

These cockpits turned out to be deceptively simple in that while they removed the need for a Flight Engineer they shifted a lot of responsibility back to the pilot and hid their complexity behind menus and and hard buttons. Due to safety requirements certain systems still required switches and even though the Flight Engineer was no longer necessary, pilots still had to learn how to navigate through all of the controls. Space travel has been no exception the Shuttle Glass Cockpit still contained so many controls and features as well as manual backups that required lengthy training and certification to operate.

The cockpit itself became synonymous with the mystique of what it takes to pilot any vehicle. The ability to start a vehicle up let alone fly it, is what separated the masses from the hardcore aviation professionals, a status quo that has persisted till the present day.

That was until SpaceX and the Crew Dragon came along.

It is hard not to notice the Crew Dragon’s simplistic looking user interface, with its bright blue displays that seem to have the astronauts attention every time you see them in action. It makes it look so easy to fly the Dragon and dare I say, accessible. When you keep in mind that one of goals of Crew Dragon is to ferry non professional astronauts to space then perhaps you can understand the thinking behind why the flight deck has been turned into more of a user User Interface than a cockpit.

Incidentally Boeing’s Starliner CST -100 which is set to be the second Commercial Crew Program vehicle to fly astronauts into space has a control interface that resembles Boeings traditional Aerospace roots and looks a lot cooler if you are an aviation nerd.

While SpaceX has an all civilian crew who will no doubt benefit from the simpler interface of the Crew Dragon it will be interesting to see the profile of future commanders of CST-100 and its derivatives, especially with the civilian and space tourism industry takes off, literally. While complex looks cool, simpler is always better.

As an interesting side note all modern automobiles contain many complex sub systems with many of them being controlled by microprocessors, but the driver is completely unaware thanks to automation. Imagine if the auto manufactures decided to put all of these systems under manual control in the hands of the driver? Most cars would then have dashboards that would resemble aircraft cockpits and how would this affect vehicle sales and safety? There is a lot going on under the hood when you drive that you take for granted. Its therefore long overdue that simplistic user interfaces driven by automation find their way into Aerospace. More so with the pending democratization of aviation.

SpaceX is leading the charge by employing a user interface that abstracts away many of the controls and unnecessary physical switches and gauges. Instead of using some proprietary technology, SpaceX opted to use standard Web Browser technology to render the display. While they don't use Chrome per say which is actually proprietary to Google, the browser you see in Crew Dragon is based on the opensource Chromium Browser which is the foundation of Google Chrome and more recently Microsoft Edge. Chromium is is also the native browser on the Raspberry Pi’s native OS.

So what you are seeing in Crew Dragon is effectively 3 tabs opened full screen (F11) on separate touch screen displays. All developed in HTML5 and JavaScript. No control sticks or pedals or levers just the 3 browser screens to control every aspect including thrusters to pilot the actual capsule. This a complete paradigm shift and it has been proven to be very effective. You can actually try your hand at flying and docking a Crew Dragon with the ISS hatch in a simulator using your web browser and if you are successful you are treated to a short video showing the Dragon’s actual UI in more detail.

SPACEX — ISS Docking Simulator and hit F11 and run on a touchscreen to feel like a real astronaut!

I was a bit cheeky with title of this post but it embodies the concept that humankinds most state of the art space vehicles are now being flown using technology that is used by billions of humans in every day life. Not just any tech but Open Source tech that’s accessible to anyone. The divide between space travel and everyday life is getting narrower and narrower.

So next time you have too many browser tabs open maybe consider switching to just 3 as that might be the sweet spot, it sure was for SpaceX…



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