Mission Control desk

Some parents take the carrot approach to homework enforcement, others the stick.

This is the best carrot I’ve ever seen. Some world-class parenting skills are on display right here. This is the homework desk of Jeff Highsmith’s older son:

And this is what it looks like when he’s finished his homework and is allowed to raise the lid.

The desk came about as the result of a family visit to the Kennedy Space Center. It’s not an exact facsimile of an Apollo Mission control desk (the real ones don’t make whooshy fizzy rocket noises, deep mechanical clankings and exciting beepings, and, as Jeff says, they do more monitoring than controlling), but those of you who have seen the real thing will definitely recognise what this is based on.

Here is a wonderful, wonderful how-to video which walks you around the build and the finished desk. We love the clear panel to display the Pi and the Arduino!

(Eben got to the bit in the video where Jeff’s son issues the command to stir the oxygen tanks and shouted: “NOOOOOOO!”)

The whole thing is run on a Raspberry Pi and Arduino, working together. Jeff says:

The programming of the console, which I posted to GitHub, has the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi working cooperatively. The Arduino uses four I/O expanders (MCP23017) to read the state of switches and buttons. Whenever a switch (be it a momentary push-button switch, a rocker switch, or a toggle switch) changes state (on to off or off to on), the Arduino tells the Raspberry Pi over a serial connection (USB cable). The Raspberry Pi plays a sound or starts a sequence of events, if necessary, and sends any commands for controlling LEDs to the Arduino. The Arduino uses five LED matrix drivers (HT16K33 on a carrier board from Adafruit) to control all of the LEDs. That allows for 640 separate LEDs, which sounds like a lot, until you consider that the numerical displays have eight LEDs per digit and the LED bargraph displays have 24 LEDs per graph (they make three colors by having a red and green LED in each segment so they can make red, yellow, or green). The potentiometers are read by the analog inputs of the Arduino.

The EECOM panel contains four potentiometers that are each mapped to a 12-segment bargraph display. Turning the knobs adjusts the number of segments lit, and I made it so all the segments change color to reflect how urgent a given value is. If the value is adjusted to the safe middle four segments, all segments lit are lit green. If it’s adjusted a bit higher or a bit lower, all lit segments are lit yellow. If the level is adjusted way too high or way too low, lit segments are red.

It even plays real clips from the real Apollo 11 mission, which Jeff was able to source online. You can read much more about the build, what all those wonderful switches and dials do in Jeff’s article for MAKE. Jeff, I hope you’re at the big Maker Faire Bay Area this May. We’re sending our education team, and they’re big fans; they’d like to pick your brains!


Michael Horne avatar

Honestly, what kid would not want one of those? Truly, a brilliant project.

liz avatar

I went all weak at the knees and jealous on behalf of Liz 30 years ago.

liz avatar

Actually, scratch that. I’m weak at the knees and jealous and want one *now*.

Rich Kavanagh avatar


Jim Manley avatar

Absolutely stunning work – Bravo Zulu, as we say in the Navy, Jeff.

We’ve got one of the Apollo Guidance Computers, including the DSKY display/keypad, on display in the R|Evolution exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley that I see as much as weekly, but Jeff’s handiwork takes the cake. We may be seeing the next Pimoroni sized business opportunity if he or someone else decides to take up the challenge to produce at least the components or a kit for building more. It would be much better if every parent could at least attempt something like this, as it really is the thought that counts. I built my own under-bed desk very similar in structure to what Jeff has done because my Dad worked three jobs and he did show me how to use his woodworking tools, but mine didn’t have any of the doo-dads that Jeff’s model does. The doo-dads were in a separate area in my bedroom though, and suffice it to say that more than made up for the lack of shiny-blinky things under my bed as I eventually became an engineering and computing overachiever in my own right :lol:

gordon77 avatar

Impressive !!

What was the budget ?

David Guest avatar

Absolutely Awesome……

Colin Allison avatar

Hunting through my bits box now – just what I need to finish off the man-cave! Now where did I leave that cobbler-T??? LEDs sourced ……

Jeff Ledger avatar

How about adding some tracking data from the IIS which is really flying overhead?

So cool.. 8 year old me is green with envy…..

Jimmy avatar

Don’t stir the tanks!!

What a great idea, I cant imagine how much fun this would be to play with!

I do however feer google knows too much about me, having been reading about operation paperclip and post war use of v2’s today….

HBE avatar


I mean everything: the idea alone is great, the attention to detail, the look and feel ….awesome!!

liz avatar

I really, really love a project where the finish is as good as this. Attention to detail is king in this sort of project, and boy, it makes a difference.

Dave Akerman avatar

Absolutely. This is definitely my favourite RPi project, and boy I wish I had one when I was young (sadly I had to make do with watching the real thing on TV).

David avatar

Now, which switch opens the pod bay doors?

Neal avatar

“I’m sorry Dave I can’t do that right now”

Jim Manley avatar

The button right under the cryo tank stirrer power switch, and above the memory boards ejection access panel … :shock:

Ronny Oretap avatar


This is just amazing! I want one!

I’m just starting up with Arduino and Raspberry Pi and this was a fantastic inspiration.

Thank you for sharing :-)

Tim Rowledge avatar

Freakin’ fabulous.

But folks – don’t use a table saw without at least a splitter, preferably a riving knife and most assuredly a guard. Fingers are important. Can’t press those lovely buttons without’em.

liz avatar

*Types reply using nose, just to demonstrate it can be done.*

Gordon avatar

Wow how did you get a * without two noses?


Gordon avatar

Although I have recently discovered the nose method of phone control when you have gloves on. It does look a bit funny though, people tend to stare…

liz avatar

I wasn’t *really* using my nose. (Curses. Rumbled.)

Haggishunter avatar


Let’s hear it for the numeric keypad.
And for the fact that nobody walked in while I was trying that. :¬)

Mark Daniels avatar

Gordon on

Wow how did you get a * without two noses?


Erm . . . try the one on the numeric keypad . . .

Jim Manley avatar

I won’t say how I know this, but a tongue will work, too … especially if your ice cream cone is dripping on your screen … :lol:

Thomas Bass avatar

I saw this video on Cheezburger yesterday. After watching Apollo 13 for the hundredth time. I had the EXACT same reaction to Eben.


Jeff Highsmith avatar

It warms my heart that people understand what happens after the cryo tanks are stirred.

Alessandro avatar

Great Job, great RaspberryPi, but most important you are a great dad!

Haggishunter avatar


Not only a brilliant enticement to do homework, but a chance for a child to actually learn something at a homework desk!

peter sibbing avatar

Nasa can cut it’s budget if they switch to Pi’s, than there is at least some money left to go to Mars.

Richard Mitchell avatar

Reminds me of LHS Bikeshed

Literally THE most fun I have ever had in a caravan.

I don’t think there were any pi’s involved but there was lots of smoke and invading aliens.


Nikki avatar

As a geeky mom who likes to think she’s got a lot of stuff covered, I’d like to say I feel totally inadequate right now. But BEST DAD EVER!

Seriously, Awesome use of a Pi.

I just wish I could get my kids that interested in it.. :/

Harald avatar

I’ve just pointed Sy Liebergot, who was Apollo EECOM and at the console when the Apollo 13 accident happened, to this here. Guess he will like it.

Ken MacIver avatar

Clunk Jaw hitting floor..

Jeff I maybe 60 next birthday but for a Panel\Dad like that I would consider adoption…
that’s adopting me of course

Colin Allison avatar

Join the queue – this 66-year old is at the head of the queue! ;-)

Scot avatar

How do you know it isn’t a LIFO queue?

Jay Hicks avatar

I adore anything and everything related to space travel. What a brilliant concept and the workmanship is amazing!!

I work at the Kennedy Space Center and can appreciate your intense interest in all things Apollo!

I would love to see a Pi version of the Apollo Guidance Computer DSKY display/keypad. That would be neat to have…hmmm. Thanks for the ideas.

My hat’s goes off to you!

Harald avatar

That would be a neat project, running the AGC emulator on a Pi and connect some keyboard and display by the GPIO.

Miguel Lopes avatar

Man!!! Uber-kudos to you, dude! You just gave a super great example to your son on how to be a great dad! He’ll remember this LONG after you go, and most likely will treasure it for life!


Raspberry Paul avatar

It does look amazing.

I’m thinking it could be done without the arduino though. Just attached the I2C stuff directly to the pi, and use a few analogue to digital converters for the variable resisters.

And I’m guessing about $600 in parts? some of the buttons are not cheap.

Jeff Highsmith avatar

Raspberry Paul, your guess on parts cost is fairly close, though I think the number is closer to $500. I have tried using just Arduinos as soundboards before, but the available audio shields couldn’t handle as many simultaneous sounds as I wanted (some of the sounds are intended to be left running, like the pumps and fans), and I need to offload a lot of the gameplay (what sounds to play when, how to do the fancy event sequences) to the RPi because the Arduino was getting low on memory/program space just taking care of the I/O.

Jim Manley avatar

One of the problems we computing museums have is maintaining artifacts in the best possible condition, and the first material to go, not surprisingly, is the plastic typically used in light bezels, pushbuttons, bat-handle switches, etc. While more modern petroleum-based materials have much better durability than the plant/cellulose-based plastics of the 1940s – 1960s and, unlike incadescent lights, LEDs generate virtually no IR/heat under bezels/pushbuttons, anything that has a transparent/translucent quality tends to not last as long as solid-colored materials. Jeff’s components seem to be straight out of the heavy industrial section of the McMaster-Carr catalog/website so they will probably be around for quite a while, but if you use the least expensive components in your own build, just be aware that they may not last as long as you might like for the purposes of “posteriority”. Also, be aware that skin oils in the fingertips that leave prints are acidic in pH and can corrode metal over time – we have some metal surfaces on artifacts that weren’t cleaned of fingerprints before being put in storage for decades, and they now have the prints permanently etched into the metal.

Pygar2 avatar

A lot of that stuff is just plain impossible to find in modern times. Some years back, I considered building a replica of the Lost in Space Robot (there’s a Yahoo group!) but basically gave up when I learned the 1.5″ white “chest” lights were no longer made…

Russell avatar

This is awesome! I’m sure sometime has mentioned it somewhere, but have you considered integrating this with Kerbal Space Program?

liz avatar

Please don’t do that. Any development on Raspberry Pi would grind to a halt immediately.

Tom avatar

This project is just plain awesomely awesome, and worthy of the Gold-level GeekDad award.

Jim Manley avatar

It occurred to me that there is a whole other dimension to this project … this sucker is completely programmable! If that iPud has a ssh or VNC capable app on it, his son should eventually be able to access the Pi at the command line or via a desktop and “enhance” (aka possibly destroy) the program. No worries, though, as long as Dad has taught him to back up the original as-built (and likely has a copy safely squirreled away … “Let’s see now, where did I put that tiny micro-SD card, anyway?”) :lol: He could read up on the actual functioning of some of those controls and potentially figure out how he could make the outputs more closely resemble those that would have resulted from manipulation of the inputs.

I can just see his son now, ” … My God, it’s full of stars … ” “To heck with the pod bay doors, HAL, I wanna see what happens when I fall through this star gate … ” ;)

killor avatar

I am impressed!
It is a good game …

The work is impressive, especially considering that a laser could cut and engrave all the pieces …
Doing so it by hand is amazing!!

Joe avatar

Kerbal Space Program.

Scott avatar

WAY! WAY! COOL! (yes I am shouting on this one.)

Looks like a retirement project for the two grandsons!

29 days to go.


Scot avatar


Faiz Saleem avatar

My Raspberry Pi feels like it’s being wasted now :P

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