The Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS) at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., is the world's largest high-fidelity motion based simulation system.
Moving as much as 60 feet vertically and 40 feet horizontally, the VMS gives pilots and engineers an opportunity to study flight characteristics of vehicles safely, in real time, and under accurate conditions.
Right now, NASA is studying the designs for the next generation of human occupied space vehicles. The Altair lunar lander, now in its third design iteration, will undergo changes based on the studies here, and eventually go into production and be used in the next generation of spaceflight.
The VMS can accommodate a wide range of vehicles in testing, in part due to the fully customizable Interchangeable Cab (ICAB). The interior of the cab can be modified to represent any aerospace vehicle. Specific seats and controls, coupled with a computer math model for the movements of the vehicle along with corresponding visuals, creates a very accurate simulation for the pilot.
Unknown to many, both the Apollo and Altair lunar lander spacecraft are standing cockpits, which saves space and weight and gives the pilot the ability to better peek through the small windows of the vehicle.
At this early stage of the design for the Altair lander, some items are fixed in place by NASA engineers, but others are not, and the engineers working at the VMS can make suggestions as to the integration of systems into the cockpit.
Aerospace engineer Karl Bilimoria gave CNET a tour of the interior of the cab. He described the conditions under which the astronauts manually pilot the Altair lunar lander during its final 500 feet of descent to the moon when it is under manual control.
Seeing the view from the pilots position, Bilimoria watches the horizon line as he lands the spacecraft. On the left, we can see the landing zone shown by the camera mounted beneath the vehicle, and on the top center the pilot's view out the from window.
Inside the spacecraft, a pilot and a co-pilot maneuver the vehicle with the help of two screens showing their location. A third screen, center, is a downward pointing camera, which shows the landing site as it comes into view.
Once the Altair lunar lander leaves orbit and is headed toward the moon, it flies automatically, with the manual controls activated for the final 500 feet of descent.
The motion base on which the VMS cab is mounted is a 70-ton beam that is moved pneumatically using compressed nitrogen. Eight 150-horsepower motors drive the columns, accelerating the vertical platform up to 22 feet per second or almost three-quarters of a G (gravitational force).
One of the major benefits of a highly controlled system like the VMS is its high level of safety coupled with a very realistic experience. Prior to the construction of the VMS in 1980, field tests often resulted in expensive crash landings.