Today I watched NASA-TV's video stream – you should check it out, it is pretty awesome to see in real-time (or not) the men and women of STS-115 workingat an altitude of 200+ miles, while moving at 17,000+ miles/second.
The STS-115 mission is the Shuttle's 116th flight, and is being flown in the orbiter Atlantis (OV-104).
And I noticed that spacewalks are getting more sophisticated – there were 3 three astronauts (2 men, 1 woman) working together on completing the station, in what clearly looked as a hard, multifaceted activity.
A very nice camera shot of the space station caught my eye – the station is taking form, finally. You need to understand — the station is supposed to have been completed by now – when originally commissioned, it was supposed have been completed in 10 years. And yet to be delivered are a number of components, which translates to missions to be flown until 2009 (God permitting).
And I'm looking forward to its completion. If all goes well, it will be finished in a couple of years. The shuttle, the space cargo bus, is doing what is was designed to do so many years ago. It is quite a bird.
Too many delays. First, back in early 1990s – very political time period (those were my days in the space program). In 1993 the US-only space station became a multi-national operation. The move affected all. The space station Freedom became the International Space Station (ISS), and operations for the station changed hands, to be ran by Boeing. Back then I worked at IBM in the Space Shuttle data processing system, specifically the OS. But IBM was also responsible for the data management system for the station – all the computers, software, and the networks on the station. By the time the station became international, lots of equipment had already been built, software was coded, and the fiber optic network was ready to go. What was to be done with all the IBM personnel working on station? and the equipment? Everyone moved on, many of the engineers relocated (at that time layoffs were rare). All the equipment was discarded, and the data management system was redesigned. Soon after IBM sells its Space Shuttle project. Note that up to that point IBM had been part of the the manned space program since its inception… Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, SkyLab, Freedom and Space Shuttle. With the change coming from the top (government), and the loss of time and money, IBM calls it quits – IBM is out of the manned space program. And it hasn't returned.
The station's data processing system became non-intelligent, and based on plain Multiplexers/DeMultiplexers (MDMs) for communication (think of MDMs as routers) – no real intelligence or programmatic growth. The data processing system designed by IBM was based on fiber-optic networks, and computers running at a whooping 25MHz 386 DX… yeap, that doesn't sound fast but it was sufficient for the type of applications it was designed for. Plus the 386s were radiation hardened with memory error detection/correction circuitry (the Shuttle's memory is also rad-hard).
Years later came the accidents. And more delays. Today the space station today is a fraction from its original design/plan
I just visited Wikipedia's entry for Space Station Freedom and found it to be pretty accurate with what I remember.
The good memories:
I worked on 5 revisions of the Space Shuttle OS (OI-20 to OI-25), that have flown on 44 missions (STS-42 to STS-85). Because the changes are applied incrementally (OI=operational increment) my code (or residues of it) should still be running right now in the current mission. I enjoyed working on the Mission Evaluation Room (MER), this is a (very secure) room behind the large mission control room (the front-room) that you see on TV. The MER was a room full of engineers monitoring different aspects of the mission. I monitored the data processing core systems, providing support to the front-room; I personally supported around 25 flights – launch, while in orbit, landings. The coolest thing was listening to the astronauts, while they were for the first time trying one of my new software features (such as the new program boot/load sequence or IPL, new I/O, or new UI). At times we had to apply memory patches via uplink to correct code errors – hey, not in my code ;-).
Back to the space station, before I left the space program, I worked on the first Shuttle mission that docked with the space station; a very critical mission that would show if all the docking theory that had been practiced for years was going to work or not – this was on the summer of 1995, the mission was STS-71. It also was the first flight of OI-24, a software version I dedicated many hours, in particular was a memory management change that required changing the use of (assembler) instructions to enable extended memory usage – this change touched the whole OS: the bootstrapper, interrupts, timers, I/O, scheduling, and was considered very critical – remember, these software systems are man-rated. One of the toughest situations I was put on during my Shuttle days was finding (while missions were pending to fly) a weird behavior during memory block copies – it took me weeks to figure it out. The bug was not in the high-level software, but in the microcode for a specific machine instruction! A bug in the microcode is very rare; that one was a bitch to find.
I was lucky enough to take a ride in the backseat with the STS-71 crew during one of their practice sessions on the NASA orbiter simulator – what an awesome experience, the closest to the real thing: vertical position for takeoff, the sound and vibrations, the solid rocket booster separation, seeing the S/W work and be used by the astronauts, the aborts, and looking “out” the window – that was the coolest thing, the closest to a real Shuttle launch. I also was lucky to see a Shuttle the launch of STS-60 up-close, during a cold morning in February of 1994 – another awesome experience; this was the 1st mission where a Russian cosmonaut flies in a US Shuttle. I also had the privilege of receiving the Silver Snoopy Award – mine was flown in STS-58, in the Columbia orbiter, which was lost in one of the accidents.
While the Internet and the Web were being created in the early 1990s (and many people made millions of dollars), I was a software engineer in the US the space program – I enjoyed every minute of it. Today, the 2nd wave of the Web is happening – the mobile Web, and this time I am in.