You don't have to work for NASA to have a cool desk loaded with buttons, switches, knobs, and flickering lights. To encourage his sons' love for space, Jeff Highsmith built them a one-of-a-kind Mission Control Desk.
"I researched the Apollo Program, as well as NASA's Mission Control Center, and designed my own console roughly based on those," Highsmith wrote in his tutorial. "I say 'roughly' because the actual Mission Control does more monitoring than controlling, and isn't awash in the whiz-bang rocket noises young kids appreciate. I took great liberties and made more of a 'space-themed' play console than an accurate simulator. My goal was simply to provide some extra ideas and sound effects for my two sons to play 'space' together."
The slanted desk has a hidden panel that when opened up reveals a mission control console. Highsmith painted the underside of the panel with magnetic primer and applied a world map over it, so a spacecraft-shaped magnet can be attached to the map and moved around to show the current position of a spacecraft in orbit. But that's not even half of what makes this desk so cool.
Highsmith programmed the console with an Arduino microcontroller and Raspberry Pi minicomputer working together to control LED lights and sound effects and to even start a sequence of events depending on which buttons are pushed. An iPad serves as an extra data display that plays a set of space-related videos.
"'C&WS' stands for 'Caution and Warning System,'" Highsmith wrote. "To the best of my knowledge, this is not something present in Mission Control so much as it is in the Apollo spacecraft, but I included it because of its playability. When a system needs to caution or warn the crew, an alarm sounds, the master alarm push-button illuminates, and the appropriate lights on the status panels come on. Pushing the master alarm push-button will stop the noise and turn off the light in the button, but the status panel will still show what caused the alarm."
The Booster panel acts as a "soundboard of rocket noises," and Highsmith also programmed the C&WS system to go off if any of the Booster buttons were pushed too often, which he describes as a "fun twist" but might possibly help save a parent's sanity as well.
"The Lamp button conducts a lamp test, lighting all the status lights so you can check if any are burnt out," Highsmith continued. "I use the other switches on the C&WS panel as a secret trigger for a simulated lightning strike."
He explains, "The Apollo 12 spacecraft was struck by lightning shortly after liftoff, damaging the Signal Conditioning Equipment power supply and causing the telemetry data in Mission Control to go haywire." He programmed the Mission Control Desk not only to simulate this disaster, but to be fixed in the same way.
"EECOM John Aaron figured out the problem and instructed the crew to switch 'SCE to Aux,' thereby putting the Signal Conditioning Equipment on auxiliary power," Highsmith wrote. "This fixed the problem for Apollo 12, and fixes the problem on my little console as well, as I programmed it to."
So not only are Highsmith's kids having fun, they're now more prepared for a space disaster. Learn how to make your own Mission Control Desk with Highsmith's Making Fun: Mission Control Desk video.