Odyssey Navigation


When the Odyssey needs to reverse thrust to try and counter a descent towards the TET, Jack calls for a full OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System) burn. We do not see what information he looks at to determine how fast he is approaching the TET, or how he knows that the OMS system will provide enough thrust.

We do see 4 motor systems on board the Odyssey

  1. The Main Engines (which appear to be Ion Engines)
  2. The OMS system (4 large chemical thrusters up front)
  3. A secondary set of thrusters (similar and larger than the OMS system) on the sleep module
  4. Tiny chemical thrusters like those used to change current spacecraft yaw/pitch/roll (the shuttle’s RCS).


After Jack calls out for an OMS burn, Vika punches in a series of numbers on her keypad, and jack flips two switches under the keypad. After flipping the switches ‘up’, Jack calls out “Gimbals Set” and Vika says “System Active”.

Finally, Jack pulls back on a silver thrust lever to activate the OMS.


Why A Reverse Lever?

Typically, throttles are pushed forward to increase thrust. Why is this reversed? On current NASA spacecraft, the flight stick is set up like an airplane’s control, i.e., back pitches up, forward pitches down, left/right rolls the same. Note that the pilot moves the stick in the direction he wants the craft to move. In this case, the OMS control works the same way: Jack wants the ship to thrust backwards, so he moves the control backwards. This is a semi-direct mapping of control to actuator. (It might be improved if it moved not in an arc but in a straight forward-and-backward motion like the THC control, below. But you also want controls to feel different for instant differentiation, so it’s not a clear cut case.)


Source: NASA

What is interesting is that, in NASA craft, the control that would work the main thrusters forward is the same control used for lateral, longitudinal, and vertical controls:


Source: NASA

Why are those controls different in the Odyssey? My guess is that, because the OMS thrusters are so much more powerful than the smaller RCS thrusters, the RCS thrusters are on a separate controller much like the Space Shuttle’s (shown above).

And, look! We see evidence of just such a control, here:


Separating the massive OMS thrusters from the more delicate RCS controls makes sense here because the control would have such different effects—and have different fuel costs—in one direction than in any other. Jack knows that by grabbing the RCS knob he is making small tweaks to the Odyssey’s flight path, while the OMS handle will make large changes in only one direction.

The “Targets” Screen


When Jack is about to make the final burn to slow the Odyssey down and hold position 50km away from the TET, he briefly looks at this screen and says that the “targets look good”.

It is not immediately obvious what he is looking at here.

Typically, NASA uses oval patterns like this to detail orbits. The top of the pattern would be the closest distance to an object, while the further line would indicate the furthest point. If that still holds true here, we see that Jack is at the closest he is going to get to the TET, and in another orbit he would be on a path to travel away from the TET at an escape velocity.

Alternatively, this plot shows the Odyssey’s entire voyage. In that case, the red dotted line shows the Odyssey’s previous positions. It would have entered range of the TET, made a deceleration burn, then dropped in close.

Either way, this is a far less useful or obvious interface than others we see in the Odyssey.

The bars on the right-hand panel do not change, and might indicate fuel or power reserves for various thruster banks aboard the Odyssey.

Why is Jack the only person operating the ship during the burn?

This is the final burn, and if Jack makes a mistake then the Odyssey won’t be on target and will require much more complicated math and piloting to fix its position relative to the TET. These burns would have been calculated back on Earth, double-checked by supercomputers, and monitored all the way out.

A second observer would be needed to confirm that Jack is following procedure and gets his timing right. NASA missions have one person (typically the co-pilot) reading from the checklist, and the Commander carrying out the procedure. This two-person check confirms that both people are on the same page and following procedure. It isn’t perfect, but it is far more effective than having a single person completing a task from memory.

Likely, this falls under the same situation as the Odyssey’s controls: there is a powerful computer on board checking Jack’s progress and procedure. If so, then only one person would be required on the command deck during the burn, and he or she would merely be making sure that the computer was honest.

This argument is strengthened by the lack of specificity in Jack’s motions. He doesn’t take time to confirm the length of the burn required, or double-check his burn’s start time.


If the computer was doing all that for him, and he was merely pushing the right button at the indicated time, the system could be very robust.

This also allows Vika to focus on making sure that the rest of the crew is still alive and healthy in suspended animation. It lowers the active flight crew requirement on the Odyssey, and frees up berths and sleep pods for more scientific-minded crew members.

Help your users

Detail-oriented tasks, like a deceleration burn, are important but let’s face it, boring. These kinds of tasks require a lot of memory on the part of users, and pinpoint precision in timing. Neither of those are things humans are good at.

If you can have your software take care of these tasks for your users, you can save on the cost of labor (one user instead of two or three), increase reliability, and decrease mistakes.

Just make sure that your computer works, and that your users have a backup method in case it fails.

The Bubbleship Cockpit

image01 Jack’s main vehicle in the post-war Earth is the Bubbleship craft. It is a two seat combination of helicopter and light jet. The center joystick controls most flight controls, while a left-hand throttle takes the place of a helicopter’s thrust selector. A series of switches above Jack’s seat provide basic power and start-up commands to the Bubbleship’s systems. image05 Jack first provides voice authentication to the Bubbleship (the same code used to confirm his identity to the Drones), then he moves to activate the switches above his head. Continue reading

Rescue Shuttle


After the ambush on Planet P, Ibanez pilots the shuttle that rescues survivors and…and Diz. We have a shot of the display that appears on the dashboard between the pilot and copilot. Tiny blue columns of text too small to read that spill onto the left. One big column of tiny green text that wipes on and flashes. Seizure-inducing yellow dots spazzing around on red grids. A blue circle on the right is probably Planet P or a radar, but the graphic…spinning about its center so quick you cannot follow. There’s not…I can’t…how is this supposed to…I’m just going to call it: fuigetry.

Mondoshawan piloting


The Mondoshawan pilot grasps two handles. Each handle moves in a transverse plane (parallel to the floor), being attached to a base by two flat hinges. We only see this interface for a few seconds, but it seems very poorly mapped.

Here on Earth, a pilot primarily needs to specify pitch, roll, and thrust. She supplies this input through a control yoke and a throttle. Each action is clearly differentiated. Pitch is specified by pushing or pulling the yoke. Roll is specified by rolling the yoke like a steering wheel. Thrust is specified by pushing or pulling the throttle. It’s really rare that a pilot wanting to lift the plane will accidentally turn the yoke to the right.

But look at the Mondoshawan inputs. They can specify four basic variables, i.e., an X and a Z for each hand. Try as I might, I can’t elegantly make that fit the act of flying well. (Pipe up if I’m not seeing something obvious.) Even if roll, pitch, and thrust was each assigned to an axis arbitrarily, the pilot would end up having to use the same motion on different hands for different variables, and there would be one “extra” axis. Of course there are two other Mondoshawans visible in the ship, and perhaps between them they’re managing that third axis of control somehow. With training and their “200,000 DNA memo groups,” the Mondoshawans could probably manage it, but it would spell trouble for us poor humans with our measly 40 and need for more direct mapping and control differentiation.


The Shagpile Cockpit


Barbarella’‘s rocket ship has a single main room, which is covered wall-to-wall with shagpile carpet. The visual panel of her voice-interface computer, called Alphy, is built into the wall near the back. On the right side of Alphy sits the video phone statue. To the left a a large reproduction of Seurat’’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte masks a door to exit the ship.


A recessed, circular seating space near the front acts as the cockpit. From this position Barbarella can see through a large angled viewport. One nice aspect of the design of the cockpit is that when things are going poorly for the rocket ship, and Barbarella is being buffeted about, the pile keeps the damage to a minimum and, the recessed cockpit is likely to “catch” her and hold her there, in a place where she can try and remedy the situation. (This is exactly what happens when they encounter “magnetic disturbances” on their approach to Tau Ceti.)

Magnetic Disturbances

The control panel for the ship is a wide band of roughly 60 unlabeled black, white, and gray keys, curving around the pilot like amphitheater seating. The keys themselves are random lengths, stacking in some places two and three to a column. Barbarella presses these keys when she must manually pilot the ship, at one point pressing a particular one several times in quick succession. That action suggests not controls for building up commands like a computer keyboard, but rather direct-effect controls, like an automobile dashboard, where each key has a different, direct effect.


This keyboard panel lacks any clues as to the functions of the keys for first-time users, but the high-contrast and cluster patterns make it easy for expert users like Barbarella (being as she is a 5-star double-rated Astro-Navigatrix) to visually locate a particular key amongst them. But there’s a lot that could be improved. First and most obvious is that the extents of the keyboard are quite spread out from her immediate reach. Bringing them within easy reach would mean less physical work. We also know that like an automotive dashboard, unless these keys are all controlling things with direct, obvious consequences, some status indicators in the periphery of her vision would be damned handy. And even with the unique key configuration, Barbarella would have an even easier time of it with physically differentiated controls, ideally with carefully designed affordances.

The other features of the cockpit, including a concave panel in the wall to her left with large, round, colored lights, and a set of large, reflective black domes on the right hand side of the cockpit, are not seen in use.

Robbie the Robot

Dr. Morbius creates Robbie after having his intellectual capacity doubled by the Krell machines. The robot is a man-sized, highly capable domestic servant receiving orders aurally, and responding as needed with a synthesized voice of his own.

Robbie exits the cockpit of his vehicle.

Robbie invites the men inside.

Robbie first appears steering a special vehicle to pick up the officers. It is specially built for him, accommodating his inability to sit down. From this position, he can wirelessly maneuver the vehicle, and even turn his head around to address passengers.

Robbie fires Adams’’ sidearm.

Despite his having only two wide, flat fingers on each hand, he is able to grasp and manipulate objects as a human would. To demonstrate this, Morbius has him aim and fire Commander Adams’’ weapon at a nearby tree. How he pulled the trigger is something of an unanswered question since his hands are hidden from view as he fires, but he does so all the same. This makes him quite useful as an interface, since he is able to use any of the devices already in the environment. Additionally, should he become unavailable, humans can carry on in his absence.

Alta thanks Robbie for offering to make her a new dress.

Given that he must interact with humans, who have social needs, his stature helps ingratiate him. In one scene Alta wishes to express her gratitude for his promise of a new dress, and she gives him a hug. Though he does not hug back, she still smiles through and after the expression. Had he been less anthropometric, she would have had to express her thanks in some other way that was less pleasant to her.

Robbie warms the coffee for Alta and Farman.

In addition to being physically suited for human interaction, he is quite socially aware and able to anticipate basic human needs. In one scene, as Lt. Farman walks with Alta towards a cold pot of coffee, without having been asked, Robbie reaches down to press a button that warms the coffee by the time the two of them arrive. He also knows to leave immediately afterwards to give the two some privacy.

Despite these human-like qualities, some of his inhuman qualities make him useful, too. He is shown to be incredibly strong. He is tireless. He can synthesize any material he “tastes.”

With eyes behind his head, Robbie shoos a pesky monkey.

He even has “eyes in the back of his head,” or a 360-degree field of vision for surveillance of his surroundings. In one charming scene he combines this observation with small nonlethal lasers to shoo away a pesky monkey trying to steal fruit behind his back.

Morbius shows Robbie’’s “sub-electronic dilemma” when asked to harm a human.

Addressing safety concerns, Robbie is built to obey Asimov’’s first law of robotics. After having his creator instruct him to point a weapon at Adams, and “aim right between the eyes and fire,” Robbie’’s servos begin to click and whir noisily. His dome glows a pinkish-red as blue sparks leap across it. Morbius explains, ““He’’s helpless. Locked in a sub-electronic dilemma between my direct orders and his basic inhibitions against harming rational beings.”” When the command is canceled, the sparks stop immediately and the red fades over a few seconds.

This failsafe seems quite serious, as Dr. Morbius explains that if he were to allow the state to continue, that Robbie would “blow every circuit in his body.” Since the fault of such a state is with the one issuing the command and not Robbie, it seems a strange design. It would be like having your email server shut down because someone is trying to send an email infected with a virus. It would make much more sense for Robbie to simply disregard the instruction and politely explain why.