When humans dream of traveling beyond our home planet, the big question is how will we get there? Even more important, how will we get home? Since America’s first moonshot, NASA has turned to Draper for the answer.
Our engineers developed the guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) systems that got the Apollo missions to the moon and back. Draper GN&C systems guided all five Space Shuttle vehicles during their 135 missions.
Today, we’re doing the same for Artemis.
In November 2022, NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) – the most powerful rocket ever built –successfully launched Artemis 1 from the Kennedy Space Center. The Orion capsule completed two lunar flybys and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The success of this uncrewed mission marked a major milestone toward the long-awaited return of humans to the moon, certifying SLS and Orion for future crewed flight on Artemis II.
Guiding the flight of both vehicles were sophisticated software and algorithms developed by Draper engineers.
The Workhorse of Space Travel
While considerably less photogenic than rockets and thrusters, GN&C systems are the true workhorses of any space mission.
In the simplest terms, navigation tells you where you are, guidance tells you the path you’ll take to your destination, and control keeps the vehicle on that path.
Together, these integrated, high-precision technologies dynamically control the spacecraft’s speed, acceleration, and rotation – either autonomously or with manual input from astronauts or ground operators.
From Launch and Orbit to Landing and Splashdown
Our GN&C expertise spans all aspects of space exploration – including launch, spaceflight,approach and rendezvous, orbital operations, and landing and hazard avoidance. Because of this, we are one of only a few companies working closely with NASA and other contractors on every aspect of the Artemis program. Among Draper’s many contributions, our GN&C systems will enable autonomous and manual flight and operations for four critical vehicles:
- Space Launch System – Our GN&C software will guide the rocket through all phases, including separation phases, ensuring that the hardware doesn’t come back into contact with the spacecraft.
- Orion spacecraft – The orbit and return will be guided by Draper-derived algorithms.
- Gateway space station – With Draper’s engineering expertise, onboard GN&C will enable key components of the station – the power and propulsion element (PPE) and the astronauts’ living quarters (aka HALO) – to move autonomously for assembly in orbit. We’re also doing systems-level engineering on navigation and control that will enable the whole station, once assembled, to maintain orbit and support lunar missions.
- Human lunar lander – Our algorithms for vision-aided navigation and control will help astronauts move from Gateway to the surface of the moon.
Bridging the Gap between Lunar Missions
Few, if any, engineering firms can claim GN&C capabilities on par with Draper. In addition to spaceflight, we have developed GN&C algorithms that keep the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit and guide its now-routine docking and undocking operations. We also developed the GN&C software that flies the Stratolaunch Talon-A hypersonic vehicle.
And even though it has been more than 50 years since the last U.S. astronaut walked on the moon, Draper has continued to advance the field of space GN&C.
“We invested in internally funded R&D to sustain and advance our capabilities in the years between Apollo and Artemis,” said Space Systems Program Manager Rick Loffi. “So, when NASA once again faced the hard problems that come with lunar exploration, we were ready.”
This work was authored by employees of Draper under Contract No. 80JSC021DA005 with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The United States Government retains and the publisher, by accepting the article for publication, acknowledges that the United States Government retains a non-exclusive, paid-up, irrevocable, worldwide license to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public, and perform publicly and display publicly, or allow others to do so, for United States Government purposes. All other rights are reserved by the copyright owner.