July 20, 1969, Mission Time: 102:45:40. One hundred and twenty feet above the surface of the moon and with less than thirty seconds of fuel remaining in the tanks, Neil Armstrong sees a sea of boulders covering the Lunar Module Eagle’s landing spot. He does what any wide-awake driver does when a pot-hole appears in the freeway just ahead: stomping on the gas, he swerves hard to the side and drives that puppy full-bore towards the nearest open spot. After finally – softly – touching down on the moon’s surface, Apollo 11 mission control can only say, “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot”
Next time we land on the moon, Mary “Missy” Cummings is going to make sure it won’t be anywhere near that hairy. Not that Missy isn’t used to hairy landings: as one of the first women Naval aviators to be cleared for combat flight, Missy landed her A-4 Skyhawk countless times on heaving carrier decks. Now that she runs MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab, she gets the chance to put her academic career (Ph.D in Systems Engineering with a focus on Cognitive Engineering) and first-hand piloting experience into practice. Her most recent area of focus: designing the visual displays that the next lunar astronauts will use when they land on the moon.
As Missy told me: “As instrumentation designers, one of our big challenges is deciding how much information not to show, and how to best trick people into perceiving what we most want them to see. We do this through multivariate instrument optimization, which is a fancy way of describing the process of layering many visual inputs together to create a single, rapidly-perceived display. In a time-critical task like a moon landing, the key is combining precise information about height and vertical speed in such a way that the pilot senses their position and speed before they even know that they’ve thought about it.”
1960’s era Apollo astronauts’ eyes had to jump repeatedly across many instruments to get this sense of situational awareness. They had to burn several “cognitive cycles” merging these multiple visual inputs and mentally making the calculations they needed to land. Eliminating such time-consuming cognition tasks (even if the time is counted in tenths-of-seconds) is one of the main goals of new cockpit instrumentation designs.
The new VAVI (Vertical Altitude and Velocity Indicator) Missy’s team designed is a perfect example. By combining “ecological perception” (seeing both the environment and its embedded clues that show what actions to take) with “emergent features” (features produced by the interaction of individual graphical elements), this instrument’s “waving arms” make the astronaut visually feel how quickly they are going up or down. Her team has tested their VAVI in a Harrier jump-jet with great success, and looks forward to pushing it out into the commercial aviation market.
Missy knows the VAVI design works: “In academia, many tools are invented purely based on theoretical research, which can be great. But in this case, I can literally say that with all my flying that I’ve ‘been there, done that’… and wished I’d had something like this instrument when I did.”