Just what the title says.

Image below shows any number of displays, knobs, switches and what-not in the cockpit of the Space Shuttle:

       Space Shuttle cockpit

Yet all of them may not be necessary throughout the mission. For instance, an aeroplane pilot can probably get by, in a pinch, with just the following

  • airspeed indicator
  • altimeter
  • artificial horizon
  • compass
  • fuel guage
  • tachometer

(Apparently the Wright brothers started out with just a tachometer, an anemometer, and a stopwatch)

Say powered and manned interplanetary commute become possible on a regular basis

  • What instruments would be necessary?
  • What kind of instruments would need to be developed?
  • $\begingroup$ The question is mighty unclear. What is your use case? What do you mean by instruments? For instance, the Space Shuttle cannot fly without at least one computer (GPC) working, and needed all five for nominal operations. We currently have all the instruments available for rocketry, and we undertake interplanetary flights every now and then. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2013 at 21:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Aug 22, 2013 at 6:57
  • $\begingroup$ The answer to this question would depend on the mission you were trying to accomplish. To expand on the airplane example, that small list of instruments may be all that's needed to takeoff and land a simple airplane. But transportation is a pretty typical mission for an aircraft. That's not really applicable for a spacecraft. Sputnik was launched with little more than communications, which if all you're trying to show is that you can communicate is really all you need. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Wuerl
    Aug 22, 2013 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ @AdamWuerl: Instruments for the purpose of spaceflight. The reference to aeroplanes was for illustration. $\endgroup$
    – Everyone
    Aug 22, 2013 at 19:05

1 Answer 1


There is no minimum for cockpit instrumentation, as spacecraft can be completely automated and/or controlled from the ground.

For practical purposes, the minimum craft controls would be:

  • a translational and rotational controller; in theory, these could be combined.
  • a fuel gage
  • a two-way radio
  • life support controls
    • Flow Rate (either a dial or an on/off switch)
    • pressure
    • temperature
    • oxygen fraction
    • oxygen level monitor
    • carbon dioxide level monitor

These are based upon the combined controls for the NASA MMU and the NASA EVA suit.

A practical spacecraft should also have:

  • attitude indicator
  • additional internal environmental controls
    • lights
    • radio controls
    • antenna pointing controls
  • computer interface for guidance controls
  • drive condition monitors
  • power system monitors and controls
  • door status monitors
  • other mission equipment monitors.
  • fuel condition and quantity monitors

Most of the controls will be multiple devices, and many will have redundancies, so each redundant system will have its own controls.

It's worth noting that the Shuttle could have been controlled with far fewer manual controls, but that the NASA felt it important to retain manual controls rather than computerized ones.

Also, the Shuttle, since it flies in US airspace, also has full aircraft instrumentation, including

  • altimeter
  • airspeed
  • landing gear operation
  • landing gear status
  • flight control surface status
  • control hydraulic pressures
  • Approach slope indicator
  • turn and bank indicator.
  • $\begingroup$ Even completely automated craft must use instruments ... $\endgroup$
    – Everyone
    Aug 22, 2013 at 5:55
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ But not Cockpit instruments. $\endgroup$
    – aramis
    Aug 23, 2013 at 5:46
  • $\begingroup$ Concur. It would need the instruments, but there would probably be no need to array them for human reading as in a cockpit. $\endgroup$
    – Everyone
    Aug 23, 2013 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ It's also worth noting that the minimum shown is, aside from the medical monitors, the extent of NASA's smallest manned spacecraft's entire repertoire that I can track. No attitude indication, no gyros. No radars... it's sensor kit is a pair of Mk 1 human eyeballs. $\endgroup$
    – aramis
    Aug 23, 2013 at 23:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.