Digitizing the Apollo Capsule for Prosperity and Possibly Progress?
Kyle Maxey posted on April 13, 2016 |
Astronaut Neil Armstrong approaching the lunar surface

Astronaut Neil Armstrong approaching the lunar surface

On July 16, 1969, a Saturn V rocket crackled as it lifted from Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Over the course of the next eight days, three hours and 18 minutes, the three astronauts aboard that rocket would reach a milestone in human achievement that has yet to be matched.

Those three men, Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, members of the Apollo 11 mission, would be Earth’s first emissaries to the surface of the Moon. Although Armstrong and Aldrin would only spend a total of 21 ½ hours on the satellite’s surface, the shear audacity of their achievement is a historic milestone like no other.

With their mission complete, the three astronauts returned to Earth in a tiny capsule, the command module Columbia, which had been their home for the entire mission.

Fast forward 45 years.

Since splashing down in the vast Pacific, most of the Columbia’s life has been spent at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, tucked behind a protective plexiglass skin. But, as luck would have it, an ambitious team of experts at the Smithsonian had bolder plans for the space-age artifact. They wanted to take the legacy of the Apollo mission and share it with the world digitally.

Digitizing a Space-Age Wonder

Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi, digitization experts at the Smithsonian, might have one of the most extensive collections of 3D scanners, structured light cameras and high-end cameras in the world. But even with all of their tools, scanning and creating a digital model of the Apollo 11 capsule represented a distinct challenge.

To begin with, the Apollo capsule is a bit cramped. Like all spacecraft, miniaturizing everything from life support to control panels was of the utmost importance to reduce lift mass. With the need to pack thousands of objects into the command module, space was at a premium.

However, using a mechanical arm and other tools, the Smithsonian team was able to capture a 1 TB scan of the command module’s interior and take thousands of 50 megapixel images of the spacecraft without physically touching it.

How detailed was this scan?

A snippet of the Smithsonian's Apollo capsule scan.

A snippet of the Smithsonian's Apollo capsule scan.

Well, after viewing their scans, the Smithsonian team found a tool once thought lost in the construction of the capsule. It was pinned between two objects and had been resting there for the better part of 50 years.

By creating such a detailed digital model of the module, the Smithsonian has not only captured the complexity of the capsule’s design, but also preserved the human element of the artifact’s story. Take, for example, the technical notes and thoughts that the Apollo astronauts scrawled on the walls of the capsule.

In the Smithsonian’s scans, the handwritten notes that dot the module’s walls can be plainly seen. These writings were previously obscured from view, not only from the general public, but also from curators and historians since the conclusion of the historic mission. But now, thanks to the support of Autodesk engineers and the Smithsonian’s scan, people across the globe can use a viewer to intricately explore a piece of history that was once mostly inaccessible.

But that’s not the whole story.  

Prosperity to Progress

When I learned about the Apollo 11 astronauts’ graffiti scrawled across the walls of the capsule, I got to thinking. Doesn’t that graffiti remind me of something else? Doesn’t it sort of remind me of model-based definition (MBD)?

Sure, take it with a grain of salt, but the notes that the three astronauts were penning on the walls of their interlunar spaceship were similar to MBD in that the astronaut’s notes were pertinent reminders, call outs and coordinates that related to the operation of their craft. Sounds a bit like MBD to me.

Taking this MBD idea a little bit further, I wondered if a digital model like the Apollo capsule could be used to thwart one of the biggest perpetual problems facing engineering: generational brain drain.

Some of the
Some of the "graffiti" tagged on the Apollo 11 capsule's walls.
One challenge often associated with complex engineering is effective knowledge management, preservation of skills and knowledge locked away in older engineers that retire, pass on or otherwise leave the practice. Most information can be passed down by an organization through good knowledge management practices, although some of the most vital and nuanced engineering know-how can be missed. It often takes the right set of circumstances, a bit of serendipity or an old hand to pass on his or her tribal knowledge to a young grad.

But how can a digitization effort like the Smithsonian’s improve the transfer of institutional knowledge?

Just suppose for a second that, aside from the digital model of the Apollo capsule, the Smithsonian’s team could combine the design and manufacturing documentation associated with the ’60s-era craft.  With the help of Autodesk’s engineers, could they have created an MBD-saturated version of the capsule that reached beneath its surface to describe the wiring systems, callouts for the nuts and bolts and more? And if they could, would engineers be able to use Autodesk’s viewer as a portal to not only explore the physical side of an assembly, but also the design intent behind its components and construction?

Design Documentation and Storytelling

While MBD is the next logical step for communicating design requirements and manufacturing instructions, the Smithsonian’s Apollo scanning project gives us an opportunity to look deeper into engineering’s future and imagine a time when design is as much an exercise in storytelling as it is engineering.

Although this idea might seem far fetched now, I think it’s entirely possible that engineering projects in the future could be completely digitized, layer by layer, and used as a template for imparting manufacturing information, engineering intuition and other rich media content across the discipline.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, isn’t that what a CAD model is? Why would you go through all of the trouble of digitizing a project if you’ve already got a 3D model?

That’s a fair point. But the information is richer than mere geometry.

My argument would be that digitizing a real world object gives engineers an opportunity to see an object after it’s been constructed, used and experienced a little wear. By superimposing artifacts from actual use in the field, project engineers can look back at a design, find its shortcomings and make corrections that can inform future generations.

But getting back to my lofty idea, I see digitization as a big new opportunity for engineering. I imagine digital models of projects a la the James Webb Space Telescope, offshore platforms, underwater drones and other complex machines having similar digital scans. But instead of stopping at the surface, these scans could be embedded with interactive CAD models of wiring (maybe even comparisons to their real world performance) and MBD documentation that can be called up at a click.  Scans could even include linked video content of the engineers who designed a system explaining why a system was built the way it was. That would be an amazing way to convey engineering.

Some may say that the engineering feats of the Apollo-era are old hat. I’d say that with its new digital lease, the Apollo project can still point us toward the future.   

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