The first firm to get an Apollo 11 contract is helping build NASA's Artemis software

August is 'looking pretty good' for the historic Artemis I mission, says Draper's Pete Paceley.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the Orion spacecraft.NASA

An immense amount of work goes into programming the manual astronaut override for NASA's upcoming crewed Artemis missions. 

As Pete Paceley, principal director of Civil and Commercial Space Systems at Draper, points out on a call with IE, "we don't want them to ever have to use manual control — but it's necessary from a safety standpoint."

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It's this type of work and attention to the smaller — but vitally important — details that have arguably made Draper one of the unsung heroes of the space industry.

Today, Draper is helping to kickstart a new era of space exploration. The company is drawing from its own work on the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs to help get NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule off the ground and around the Moon.

They'll only be getting started when all of that is behind them.

From Apollo to Artemis via the Space Shuttle program

Draper is a pillar of the space industry, with an illustrious history dating back to the Apollo moon landings. MIT's Charles Stark Draper founded the organization in 1932 to develop aeronautical instrumentation. It was later called the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, and in 1973 it spun off from MIT and became an independent non-profit.

One of Draper's most important contracts changed the course of space history. In the 1960s, the engineering firm was awarded the very first contract for the Apollo 11 mission — the lab was tasked with developing the Apollo Guidance Computer for that historic mission and with training the astronauts in its use. Since then, Draper has also worked on the International Space Station (ISS) and the Space Shuttle. And now, its engineers are reworking computer software developed for the Space Shuttle program for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions.

The first firm to get an Apollo 11 contract is helping build NASA's Artemis software
Draper has worked with NASA on the Apollo (left), Space Shuttle (center), and Artemis (right) programs. Source: 1, 2, 3

Draper "has a very long history with NASA, and it's working on the elements of Artemis I, the Orion capsule, and, of course, the Space Launch System," Paceley tells IE. "[We] work with NASA to provide key technologies to help ensure Artemis will be successful." 

The Artemis collaboration was solidified by a $49 million five-year NASA contract awarded to Draper last year. Under the terms of that contract, Draper will provide advanced guidance, navigation, and control (GN&C) as well as avionic technology and analysis for the Artemis missions. NASA's Artemis mission will take astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since 1972, and we're very close to seeing the first mission lift off from Earth.

NASA is on the brink of launching Artemis I

NASA recently announced a potential launch date of August 29 for Artemis I, following a long string of delays finally bookended by a successful wet dress rehearsal on June 20. According to Paceley, the "end of August is looking pretty good" for the launch of Artemis I, though he also acknowledges the limited launch windows and the constraints faced by NASA.

The Artemis I mission will send the Orion spacecraft around the Moon and back to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Artemis II will perform the same maneuver, but with astronauts aboard — which will amp up the pressure significantly. Draper is working on the aforementioned manual override features for Artemis II, as well as advanced controls and displays for the crew of astronauts.

Barring Artemis III, which will launch aboard a SpaceX Starship launch vehicle, Draper is also working on future missions beyond Artemis II — NASA already has provisional plans in place for ​​placing Artemis IV through VIII into space.

Draper will work on numerous key mission areas for these missions. The company will develop the guidance, navigation, and control (GN&C) aboard NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule. It is developing software to operate the four solar arrays aboard Orion. It is also working on the redundancy management system (RMS) for fault detection, containment, and recovery aboard SLS and the powered explicit guidance (PEG) that will determine optimal flight trajectories aboard Orion and SLS.

SLS has a 'significantly different acceleration profile' to the Space Shuttle

An unfathomable amount of work goes into the software of NASA's missions, which rely significantly on automation to send spacecraft where they need to go.

Tom Fill, a principal member of the technical staff at Draper, who was also on the call with IE, highlights this point neatly by comparing the difference between working on the Space Shuttle and on SLS.

"The extremes in acceleration in the case of the Space Shuttle during Solid Rocket Booster staging [were a real challenge]," Fill explains to IE. "The shuttle had an acceleration level a little over one G and it ramped up [almost] exponentially, or quadratically, in two or three G's and then leveled off there. But it had a relatively short burn of about eight minutes."

"And with SLS," Fill continues, "the stages have a significantly different acceleration profile, so that the burn arc is much longer. So a lot of work was required to adapt the shuttle algorithm to the peculiarities of the SLS launch vehicle."

If all goes to plan, Draper and NASA will see a more-than-decade-long project come to fruition by the end of August. It will also kickstart the U.S. space agency's plans to use the Moon as a stepping stone to eventually send humans to Mars.

All of this will be thanks to a combination of the new and the old — and thanks to firms like Draper that draw from expertise accrued over decades of work on the Space Shuttle missions and the historic Apollo program.