SpaceX has launched a new browser-based simulator that provides an idea of what it would be like to manually control the docking process of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, the first human-carrying spaceship the company has made. Crew Dragon actually docks with the International Space Station (ISS) fully autonomously, but astronauts are able to take over manual control, should that prove necessary, and this simulator provides what SpaceX says is the “actual interface” that astronauts would use in that instance.
The user interface for the docking process is surprisingly simple, given that it reflects the actual UI that astronauts would use on board Crew Dragon. It looks like what you’d expect to find in a virtual cockpit control in a space sim on an iPhone or iPad, which actually makes a lot of sense, as most of the control and information readout displays on board Crew Dragon actually are touchscreens.
There are directional arrows on either side, and you can control the orientation of the capsule, as well as its vertical and horizontal position, and toggle between making large or smaller movements in each case. Simple visual feedback in the central targeting reticle gives you an idea of what each control does, providing you a relatively easy way to figure out the control system on your own without much in the way of guidance. A simple help function lets you know that your main goal is to get all figures on the targeting reticle green, but otherwise the main thing you require to get docked successfully is patience.
While it’s mostly a fun way to distract yourself, it’s actually also a remarkable first-hand look at SpaceX’s approach to human-centred interface design when it comes to its spacecraft controls. This is very different from the interfaces you’ll see from archive footage taken from NASA’s Apollo or Space Shuttle program, and clearly has been influenced by the modern era of omnipresent touchscreen devices.
The proof of its efficacy ultimately depends on how likely it renders the pilot able to succeed with docking, however, so why not give it a shot and see if you can stick the arrival — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he managed it on his first try, but he is a former Air Force pilot, so it’s not like he was starting from scratch.