Continuing with the 2015 Mission to the Solar System, we now come to the Moon (Earth’s moon, in case there’s any confusion). The most important fact about the Moon is that human being have actually been there, so for this week’s edition of Sciency Words, let’s look at a term that was closely tied to the Moon Landings:
Pronounced “dis-key,” this term is an acronym for “display and keyboard,” and it served as the main computer interface for astronauts during the Apollo Missions. And I cannot emphasize this enough: DSKY was not exactly “user-friendly.”
Apollo astronauts issued commands to their guidance computer by entering a “verb” followed by a “noun.” The computer would then perform the indicated verb on or with the indicated noun. Verbs included things like “display” or “enable” or “initiate.” Nouns could be parts of the spacecraft, countdowns, preprogrammed maneuvers, etc.
That seems simple enough until you see the interface itself. It’s just a number pad with a few extra buttons (note the two on the left labeled “verb” and “noun”).
This system is not even a little bit intuitive. Turns out every noun and verb had specific two-digit numbers assigned to it. How did astronauts know which number combinations to use? They had to memorize them.
As user-unfriendly as it may seem, DSKY actually simplified the Apollo Missions by reducing the total number of keystrokes required to operate the guidance computer. If you’re trying to land on the Moon, would you want to type out “please perform landing and breaking phase” or would you rather just hit six buttons: “verb-5-0, noun-6-3”?
In fact, Apollo astronauts reported that DSKY was surprisingly easy to use. One astronaut compared it to playing the piano. Once you familiarize yourself with the keys, your fingers just know what to do.
But that’s only true after you’ve learned the interface. You need training. A lot of training. I’m willing to bet even experienced pilots from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program would not necessarily be able to figure out how to use the DSKY interface from the Apollo Missions.
This is one of my biggest pet peeves in science fiction: characters sitting down at unfamiliar control panels and somehow instantly knowing how to use them.
But maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe computers on spacecraft will become more user-friendly over time (based on my research, that has not yet been the case). So what do you think? If we ever build something like the starship Enterprise, how easy or difficult will it be to learn the user interface?
Apollo Flight Journal from NASA History Division.
Computers Aboard the Apollo Spacecraft from Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience.