Half a century after the Apollo 11 programme, there are ongoing challenges for engineers working on unmanned and manned space projects. But how has the technology facilitating space travel evolved since the first moon landing, and what advancements can we expect to see over the next 50 years?
While some challenges associated with space travel have remained fairly consistent since the very first space programmes of the 1950s and ‘60s, new ones have emerged alongside older risks.
The unforgiving nature of the space environment
This is one problem that has remained constant over the last 50 years. In some respects it has become worse, especially as near-Earth orbit is increasingly littered by debris that can seriously damage an orbiting vessel. You cannot simply bring a damaged space vehicle back down to Earth and into the workshop for repair and analysis – it’s lost forever, and engineers must go back to the drawing board with the next iteration.
Unknown simulation conditions
Given the relatively small amount of information we have about the environment on other celestial bodies, it is incredibly difficult to test spacecraft designs using simulation tools. We do not know the precise environments on Europa, for example.
Escalating complexity of spacecraft
Of course, with recent advances in technology, this has inevitably meant that spacecraft designs are far more complicated than their original counterparts. What does that mean? There is far more that can go wrong!
Poor knowledge capture
Back in the 1960s, not all of the information about prototype spacecraft designs was recorded, meaning that a vast amount of knowledge gained from testing – whether it was a successful or unsuccessful design – was lost forever.
The space sector isn’t immune from the STEM skills gap. For the industry to reach its full potential, we urgently need individuals with the right knowledge and expertise to develop new and pioneering technology to improve space travel.
Fortunately, there is technology at hand to help overcome these issues.
Simulation technology has massively improved over the last 50 years. While the concept itself has not changed that much, what has progressed is simulation capability: there is now significantly more processing power, meaning the sheer quantity and detail of simulations performed on spacecraft design during the R&D process has been transformed without needing to build expensive hardware to test. The benefit of this improved simulation is the design can be tested far more thoroughly, dramatically reducing the risk of an accident in take-off and flight. With the latest tools it is possible to run thousands of scenarios in a much shorter period of time, meaning the development phase is also much faster.
AI also has a huge role to play. Prior to the Apollo 11 mission, spacecraft were the original autonomous vehicles. What AI has the potential to do is further the autonomy of these vehicles – without a human in the loop it is possible to make more timely decisions, because there is no longer a need for those involved in the mission to wait for data to travel all the way down to Earth for computation and back. Currently, much of the spacecraft sensor data has to undergo human analysis before mission decisions are made. Using AI onboard the spacecraft will mean computation can be performed in real-time.
The issue of knowledge capture has been greatly improved by the introduction of Model-Based Design. 50 years ago, documenting design successes and failures just was not a priority, which is why many original designs were lost. Now engineers can capture a lot of that knowledge, so they understand how not to repeat mistakes and improve the designs of the future.
New tools will facilitate the automation of repetitive tasks that machines are good at, resulting in much quicker design processes and reducing risks associated with human error. That said, even though technology will help, software will not eliminate all risk and some human error will always creep in. For spacecraft design to truly flourish we need good fundamental engineering and an experienced eye to reduce risk as much as possible.
Finally, in terms of mitigating against the skills gap, the buzz around the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and the creation of new technology tools will help revive interest in the sector and inspire the next generation of engineers.
While the last 50 years has brought new challenges, modern tools and fresh opportunities will help mankind take its next giant leaps into the cosmos.
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.