Watch Amazon Prepare to Prepare Alexa for Space

When it comes to voice-enabled artificial intelligence in sci-fi, smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa have been a mixed bag.

We have seen it in all of 2001: A Space Odyssey for star trek, and it’s that last example that resonates with Amazon’s Rohit Prasad, Senior Vice President and Chief Science Officer of Alexa. It’s this symbiotic, optimistic relationship between space travelers and responsive technology that Prasad hopes to embody in Alexa’s biggest mission yet: flying to the moon.

Amazon announced in January that its smart assistant Alexa would hitchhike aboard NASA’s first of three Artemis missions to return to the moon in the 2020s. From scratch, the Artemis 1 launch configuration includes a very large 3.5 million pound rocket called the Space Launch System that will propel the Orion space capsule about 16 feet in diameter to the moon with Alexa integrated into the spacecraft’s dashboard as part of a payload called Callisto . (Here’s a great explainer to The Verge about the drama and delays behind the Space Launch System.) The Artemis 1 mission will be uncrewed and orbit the moon instead of landing on it.

“The need to communicate with a machine has been there for a reason in fiction,” Prasad explains in a new mini-documentary following the process, from Amazon’s perspective, of the literal moonshot. “star trek was a big influence on me as a kid… the fact that you could just talk to a computer and have your demands met was mind boggling to me.

Like the Artemis 1 mission itself, preparing Alexa for space travel presented unique challenges for Amazon and its partners Lockhead Martin and Cisco. Unlike the environment a smart speaker might thrive in on Earth, Alexa will no longer be able to access cloud data onboard Orion. This meant the team had to find a way to move the complex voice processing steps from the system to the device itself. In the future, this learning process can also be used to improve the use of Alexa in remote places on Earth, Prasad explains in the documentary.

Even without astronauts on board, Alexa will still test its ability to help people through virtual crew experiences conducted between Johnson Space Center and the Orion spacecraft in near real time. Maybe one day, for busy astronauts en route to the moon, Alexa will be able to access Orion’s telemetry data and answer questions like “How fast is Orion traveling?” or “What’s the temperature in the cabin?”

Even further into the future, the Amazon team imagines that Alexa could also offer companionship to deep space travelers.

Still, for all the potential benefits of having Alexa on board, the team behind Callisto say preparing for system failure is just as important as preparing for success. That way, even if Alexa or Callisto fails, the mission itself isn’t in jeopardy or facing a 2001-like the crisis.

After several failed wet dress rehearsals, Artemis 1 is expected to make a fourth rehearsal attempt in June with an estimated launch no earlier than August, NASA officials said in a recent press call. With any luck, Alexa will make its debut in space by the end of the year.

Watch the short documentary below and follow NASA’s updates on Artemis on its blog, here.

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