Flight simulator in your pocket, says NASA flight instructor
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the launch of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, the agency is rethinking its decision to put a flight simulator on board.
It has a pilot in the cockpit and the ability to simulate a flight by looking down the nose of the rocket, using an on-board camera.
But the flight simulator is a little outdated, says Chris McKay, a NASA avionics engineer.
It was designed for high-speed launches, and it doesn’t have enough sensors to capture the high-pressure atmosphere of Earth’s atmosphere at speeds over 2,500 miles per hour, he says.
“It’s not something that can fly in a vacuum,” McKay says.
A newer, more accurate version of the simulator is in the works, but McKay is frustrated by how the old flight model isn’t ready for prime time yet.
“That’s something we need to have done,” he says, noting that NASA needs to address the issue with the new flight simulator.
The simulator would have a similar camera system, McKay says, but it’s not yet ready for flight.
The agency is also testing the flight simulators to make sure they don’t get damaged in the launch process.
NASA has yet to determine how much money it will need to spend on the new simulator, but the agency says it expects to spend $1.5 billion.
“The simulation is going to be an important piece in our overall flight simulation effort,” McKay said.
A pilot in a simulator is still the best way to go when a rocket goes into space, says Jason McConkey, who leads the agency’s avionics branch.
“But it is going too soon,” he adds.
“We have a lot of work to do.”
The flight simulator was originally designed to help NASA develop a new launch vehicle.
NASA wanted to use the simulator to learn how to launch a vehicle on a launch pad.
“I would have loved to see it go into orbit,” McKay recalls.
“Now that’s a little disappointing.”
NASA is looking at how to improve the simulator’s performance in the future.
It could help the agency better understand how a launch is going, says Mike Smith, the executive director of the flight simulation program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA will have to decide how much it wants to spend for the flight, Smith says.
NASA could use the simulators on its next big mission, which is to get astronauts on a spacecraft to Mars.
“This will help us understand how we’re going to do that,” Smith says, “and also make sure we get the right people.”
“When you have a simulation that is able to provide a high level of simulation, you don’t have to worry about getting it on a rocket,” he said.
“You can get it on the ground and fly it, which we are trying to do now.”
NASA plans to start using the simulator in the first half of 2019.
“One of the things we’re hoping to see is that it will be a valuable tool to us as we develop our next launch vehicle,” McKay adds.
The FAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are also looking into how to make the simulator more accurate and reliable.
The simulators are designed to work with the flight software.
“If we’re able to make that software better, we’ll have a much better chance of making sure that we’re getting a reliable launch vehicle on the launch pad,” McKay notes.
A new flight model for the simulator could be ready in about a year, McKay predicts.
NASA is also considering whether to use an upgraded version of its flight simulator, with better camera systems.