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Orion's lesson for IT: Test your systems, then test again (and again)

Sharon Gaudin | Dec. 11, 2014
When NASA's new spacecraft, Orion, made its maiden voyage last week, it completed its successful 4.5-hour trip running on a 12-year-old processor and a computer that's far from state-of-the-art.

When NASA's new spacecraft, Orion, made its maiden voyage last week, it completed its successful 4.5-hour trip running on a 12-year-old processor and a computer that's far from state-of-the-art.

So how did NASA's engineers make this old technology work for them in the rigors of space?

Testing. Testing. Testing.

"It was a very good flight," Matt Lemke, NASA's deputy manager for Orion's avionics, power and software team, said Tuesday. "It was as good as it could have gone.... The way we achieved that is by testing. We put our system together and we put it in the right environment and tested it in all directions to give ourselves the confidence it was going to work."

That encompasses the advice Lemke would give any CIO or enterprise IT shop. You don't have to have the latest and greatest technology. Sometimes, he said, it's more about saving money, using what already works and testing the heck out of it to make sure it does the job.

"I think you need to understand what you're trying to do and, in our case, it was reliable spaceflight," said Lemke. "It wasn't about the latest and greatest technology. It was what we could use for the least amount of money and the highest reliability to accomplish our mission. And that's what we did."

He added that NASA also spent a lot of time worrying over low-probability problems. Any risk was something to focus on.

"I think what we did right was designing and testing the system," said Lemke. "We worried over every detail, every anomaly. We understood what was happening every time we had a problem so when it was time to fly, those problems were past us."

Orion , NASA's next-generation spacecraft, is designed to carry astronauts into deep space. The space agency hopes it will take humans to an asteroid in the 2020s and to Mars and back in the 2030s. Orion is a critical component of NASA's plan to reach further into the solar system than ever before.

Flying without a crew n its first test flight, the spacecraft made two orbits around the Earth on Friday and flew 15 times higher than the orbit of the International Space Station. Despite traveling twice through the high radiation field of the Van Allen belts, Orion's three computers functioned perfectly. No crashes. No resets. No hiccups.

Lemke credited the older technology on board as one reason the computers performed flawlessly.

The spacecraft runs a flight computer that Honeywell International Inc. originally built for Boeing's 787 jet airliner. The computer uses IBM's single-core PowerPC 750FX processors, which were first launched in 2002.

NASA ruggedized the computer, which operates everything on the spacecraft, by building a thicker circuit board and hardware to decrease the effect vibrations have on it. NASA also added two redundant computers. That decreased the chances of all three computers failing at the same time to better than one-in-1.8 million missions.

 

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