“Alexa, how far are we from Earth?
“Currently, Orion is 204,066 miles away from Earth and 230,986 miles away from the Moon.”
No, Amazon’s digital voice assistant hasn’t lost the plot; Alexa hitched a ride on the Orion spacecraft. Following a successful launch of NASA’s Artemis I mission this week, Alexa is currently hurtling toward the Moon.
“Alexa, how fast are we going?
“Orion’s current relative velocity to Earth is 3,281 miles per hour.”
Earlier this summer, on the day Artemis I was originally scheduled to launch, I spent an hour testing out the capabilities of this new deep space voice assistant down on the ground at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
While this was a demo model (they wouldn’t let me in the spacecraft — I asked), as far as I could tell, it was an exact replica of the one on Orion, even down to the lack of an internet connection.
My first impression was, “Wow, this is one speedy voice assistant.” It responded to commands in milliseconds — when it recognized them correctly; yes, there’s still that problem.
This speed is because Amazon engineers developed an entirely local Alexa for Orion — there’s no cloud in space (well, not a reliable one). Space Alexa is completely self-sufficient, something I’d love to see in Amazon’s Earth version. As well as being able to respond faster, a cloud-free Alexa would reduce some of the privacy concerns around a smart speaker in your home.
I can safely predict that is not going to happen. Amazon’s cloud servers provide Earth Alexa with roughly 80 percent of its features. But that speed may come to an Alexa near you for at least some basic functions.
“We [plan] to reuse the local voice technology we’ve developed on existing Earth applications,” Philippe Lantin, principal solutions architect for Alexa Voice Service, told me. “Alexa on Orion can answer thousands of queries locally, so we’re reusing some of that knowledge to build better voice models.”
Local voice control is currently an option with a few Echo devices for certain commands, and Lantin said they’re looking at expanding that.
My second impression was: this thing is huge.
How on Earth will they find room for it on a spacecraft? NASA is not sending an Echo Dot into deep space. Instead, Lockheed Martin (who built Orion) developed a special — and very large — spacesuit for the voice assistant’s software.
Amazon, Lockheed Martin, and Cisco footed the bill to send this Frankensteinian creation of consumer tech to the Moon
“We had to build an Alexa from the ground up as a standard Echo probably wouldn’t survive the launch,” said Brian Jones, an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin and the man who first came up with this idea.
Alexa shares its spacesuit — which is actually a large blue panel designed to withstand the rigors of space travel — with a 2020 Apple iPad running Cisco’s Webex software. (It’s all kumbaya in space.)
That large blue panel is called Callisto, and its technical term is payload — because you “pay” to “load” it on the rocket. And don’t you worry. Amazon, Lockheed Martin, and Cisco completely footed the bill to send this Frankensteinian creation of consumer tech to the Moon.
Currently, Callisto is sitting where the astronauts’ controls will be on future crewed missions, as Artemis I is uncrewed. Obviously, it’s not going there if it ever gets to ride along with a real crew. If that happens, it will get a hardware redesign, said Jones.
Neither the iPad nor Alexa is actually connected to Orion’s systems. “NASA was very explicit,” explained Jones. “Thou shalt not command the vehicle in any way, under any circumstances.”
Instead, NASA allowed Callisto to install a subsystem of Orion’s flight software to test how Alexa could provide flight telemetry data to a crew and explore the potential effectiveness of voice control for future crewed missions.
But wait, don’t spacecraft already have voice control? No.
“There’s definitely an expectation among the general public that these vehicles have voice-control technology on board already,” Justin Nikolaus, lead voice UX designer at Amazon Alexa, told me. “There have been experiments, but there isn’t an AI on board just waiting to answer all your questions like there is in science fiction.”
This was the problem Amazon set out to solve. But even with Callisto on board Artemis, they are still light-years away from a serious solution. Voice user interfaces are super hard, and no one’s nailed them here on Earth, let alone in space, where technology needs to be fail-safe. But someone has to take that first small step.
What happened when the astronaut stepped in gum? He got stuck in Orbit
Nikolaus and his team have been working on developing a version of Amazon’s voice assistant for space since 2018. The finished product is only a technology demonstration — it has no control whatsoever over Orion.
Surprisingly, it’s really not that different from the AI in your living room. It can tell bad jokes (“What happened when the astronaut stepped in gum? He got stuck in Orbit”), play some music, set timers and alarms, and turn lights on and off (special lights built into Callisto, not the actual spacecraft lights).
These functions are all more limited than Earth Alexa — as every command and response has to be preprogrammed — but they can be tailored for every mission. For example, the crew’s favorite tunes could all be preloaded on space Alexa.
Space Alexa can also pull real-time telemetry data from Orion’s software to relay over 100,000 different data points on Orion and, when connected to NASA’s Deep Space Network (NASA’s internet connection), announce the latest sports scores and news and add items to your shopping list. Yes, when and if it gets to go with astronauts on board, the crew could add milk to their shopping list. (They might want to pick the shelf-stable version.)
The benefit of all this is exactly the same as it is on Earth: hands-free voice control is super convenient. “Astronauts are extremely busy on board, and when you’re trying to multitask, voice is a great vehicle for information retrieval,” said Rohit Prasad, head scientist for Alexa at Amazon. “We are bringing Star Trek’s ‘Computer’ to reality,” he said proudly. “We see a big role for AI in the future in space, and this is essentially the first proof point.”
Reality check. We are still a long, long way out and far, far away from anything resembling Star Trek’s “Computer.” The first hurdle is seeing if Alexa can provide those imagined benefits to astronauts in space. Or will the voice assistant’s presence be a slightly annoying novelty? (As it currently is in a lot of homes on Earth.)
During the Artemis I mission, testers will send commands to Alexa from Houston, using a speaker to relay the commands as if a crewmember were saying them. Onboard cameras will capture the integrations. Nikolaus is hoping it will demonstrate the ways the voice assistant can improve the quality of life for astronauts during their mission as well as make them more productive.
“Alexa is not going to open the pod bay doors”
“A crew’s time in space is extremely expensive,” he said. An hour of a crewmember’s time on the ISS is $130,000. “Being able to interface the vehicle as many different ways as possible can save time, and voice is one of those ways.”
The Callisto team interviewed astronauts and NASA engineers to understand what would be most useful to them. Jones said that everyone they spoke to was “universally intrigued” by the idea of voice control. Although clearly, there was plenty of skepticism.
“No one was comfortable with running any mission-critical commands — Alexa is not going to open the pod bay doors,” said Jones. “But turning on the lights, setting timers and alarms. That’s convenient and not scary.”
The flight telemetry data could have some use: they might ask Alexa to check cabin pressure, temperature, oxygen levels, etc., rather than looking at a screen. The voice assistant could also help as they move through procedures and experiments by reading out the next step to an astronaut so they don’t have to pull out the notebook Velcroed to their leg.
Callisto is not the first attempt to send experimental tech into space. Who can forget the robotic Astrobees (weirdly analogous to Roombas), the “holoporting” doctor, and CIMON, the AI space robot that was stupidly creepy (and partially built by IBM)?
But the ultimate goal here is to reproduce an Alexa in space with all the same capabilities as the Alexa in your sitting room. Whether that’s one that promptly and correctly responds to your every command or the one that sometimes thinks I asked it to blast K-pop through my house when all I said was to set a kitchen timer — well, we will have to wait and see.
But there was one thing I had to check before space Alexa set off on its journey to the distant retrograde orbit:
“Alexa, open the pod bay doors.”
“I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t do that.”
Well, that’s a relief.