The technology that helped put astronauts on the moon is often credited with spearheading dozens of scientific breakthroughs—from advances in medicine to consumer electronics. And if you’re looking for ways to improve your IT support department, NASA also has developed many innovative IT policies that could benefit your workplace.

For example, NASA standards that would work at the enterprise level include:

  • An equipment certification process, ensuring standardization.
  • A longer repurchasing cycle, contributing to standardized equipment.
  • An inflexible BIOS, helping developers build compatible applications.
  • Updates pushed by the server on the Space Station.
  • Space Station crews having their own IT managers.

Here are some specifics on how these policies work for NASA.

Flying higher with high standards
IT folks at NASA have to support a specific hardware platform for safety reasons, and yet every mission is different due to individual software requirements. When the International Space Station is manned continually later this year, the management process will become even more complicated.

Matthew Bordelon is the project manager at NASA whose IT staff supports the personal computers on the space shuttle and International Space Station from mission control at the Johnson Space Center.
This is the second in a two-part series profiling how NASA supports astronauts and others on both the space shuttle and International Space Station. The first article in the series, “IT at NASA: How the support crew keeps them flying,” described the challenges NASA faces when its remote users are only a few hundred miles away, but zipping by at about 17,000 mph.
To ensure the safety of the astronauts, all machinery that goes into space has to be safety certified. These standards apply to everything from the fire resistant coating on the IBM ThinkPads to the actual components under the ThinkPad’s hood.

“Everybody buys the same thing and uses the same thing so they can all certify their platform for space flight,” Bordelon said. “You want, out of the same lot, the same components so that you can certify that it is safe to use for flight, and you are going to see the same benefits and the same issues when issues arise.”

Because the hardware requirements are so restrictive, NASA tries to get the most out of its machines by placing them on a four-year replacement cycle. For this reason, the ThinkPads the shuttle astronauts carry with them are “vintage” 760xe computers running at 166 MHz, Bordelon said.

NASA will begin to replace these machines next year, he said, and in some ways it is not something to look forward to. At NASA, the numbers add up very quickly when you count all the people who are affected by a change in computers.

“The way they fly six or so [astronauts] on the orbiter, that is not really that many, or 12 or so onboard the Space Station,” he said. “But you have to remember that they are also doing simulations down here in Houston or in Russia, or in Japan, or in Europe.”

Everyone has to have the laptop and its software platform, Bordelon said.

“Then, of course, you have developers who are building their programs to collect their data for their payloads. By the time it is all said and done, you are looking at a neighborhood of probably 2,000 machines.”

Part of that total includes NASA’s 13 centers and the 16 nations of the European Space Agency, along with the Russians and Japanese.

To aid all of the developers, trainers, and others who use the computers, the BIOS of each has remained the same and NASA is still using Microsoft’s Windows 95, according to Bordelon.

“What you do affects everyone else. If you want to add memory, then everybody else has to get that memory added. It is the trickle-down effect.”

The loaded question: What’s on your drive?
While the machines, BIOS, and operating system remain the same on the PGSC (that’s NASA’s acronym for Payload General Support Computer), the disk image for any particular machine, for any particular mission, changes.

Even so, Bordelon said there are basically two different groups of images, those for shuttle flights and those for the Space Station. In each of these disk images, there is a core set of software that everyone has. For example, they all have Microsoft Office and applications to help them with orbit information for space flight rendezvous, he said.

The shuttle astronauts will have flight-specific loads that are determined by their tasks. For the most part, the disk load is set about a year in advance and will change with last-minute data added to the load a few days before the flight, Bordelon said.

If something goes wrong in a major way, the astronauts carry spare hard disks and are trained in replacing them. Updates can be made during data synchronization with satellites. Unresolved issues are investigated when the space shuttle lands after a typical two-week stay in orbit.

The Space Station load will resemble that of a terrestrial one because astronauts and cosmonauts will live on the station for much longer periods of time, Bordelon said.

“It is more of a server-client architecture. The clients all have their sets of software. There is a specific load for that, there is a specific load for the file server, and then every time a person logs in, just as if you would do it in a corporate network down here, it goes out and checks to see if there are any upgrades to your client load,” he said.

There is a larger variety of loads on the Space Station also. There are loads for the server, clients, a computer that functions as a router, and another for a computer that works as a communications interface. There also are loads specific for different international astronauts and cosmonauts.

“We load those packages and those upgrades on the server, and then it tells all of the clients the next time they log in that they need to go ahead and upgrade. We push the new software onto those machines to keep the loads the same.”

The future of PCs in space
While the server architecture adds more personal computing power in space, Bordelon said the next generation of computers NASA plans to buy will have to handle Internet interactivity better, and the computers will have to handle a variety of audio and video.

“We also want to do IP telephoning onboard so [space travelers] can make phone calls from orbit. They have a number of different communications tools that they can use onboard, but nothing to the extent they can just pick up the phone and call up somewhere,” he said.

There has already been talk among the IT staff of telephone booths with numbers scratched in the walls, along with the anticipated day when a Space Station occupant orders a pizza and demands a 15 minute response, Bordelon said.

Reining in the astronauts may be the job of the first CIO or IT manager in space.

“All of the other systems onboard have their own manager that keeps track of things,” Bordelon said. “We are also going to have an onboard IT manager, basically keeping track of all the information technology infrastructure that is on board and all of the tools that are used.”
Would you want to be the first CIO or IT manager in space? How standard are your hard drive images? Do you delay purchasing new equipment or updating operating systems because of the hassle? Post a comment below to tell us what you think, or send us a message.