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Monday, March 25, 2013

It's more fun to compute...

In the late 1980s, I nearly moved to Florida to work for Lockheed Space Operations as a computer programmer working on Space Shuttle systems at Kennedy Space Center. Though a position was targeted for me, a government budget reduction led to that position and others being eliminated – and I dodged a big bullet of landing in Titusville FL only to become immediately unemployed.

State of the 1960s IT art: an Apollo Guidance Computer.

Having remained in the Information Technology realm, I’ve always been interested in the programming and technology aspects of spaceflight. When you consider that the onboard computers of the Apollo program look nearly prehistoric compared to an iPhone, it becomes apparent how so many of today's space exploration wonders are possible.

Linux into orbit: the SpaceX Dragon at the International Space Station.

Aerospace Perceptions has mentioned the efforts of SpaceX numerous times, and with their Dragon spacecraft scheduled to return to Earth just after noon tomorrow after a successful re-supply mission to the International Space Station, the company’s IT folk are surely working flat out. Many people imagine giant rooms of supercomputers when they think of spaceflight, but having visited SpaceX’s Launch Control Center operation in Florida, the center is essentially nothing more glamorous than typical PC workstations you might see in any office. And despite the exotic nature of spaceflight, the central concerns of SpaceX will sound familiar to anyone who works in IT: project management, logging of performance and defects, etc.

The deliverables may be extraordianry, but the infrastructure is standard-issue.

For all of you tech heads out there, here are two articles you may want to read in-depth. One contrasts the Apollo Guidance Computers compared to today’s technology, and the other is a detailed Linux look into SpaceX’s IT efforts used in almost every aspect of their spaceflight operations:

Friday, March 1, 2013

Stress testing marriage - the Martian way

This morning SpaceX took another step toward proving the validity of commercial space ventures with the latest launch of its Falcon rocket bearing the Dragon capsule. This is the firm’s second International Space Station resupply mission, and with each success SpaceX’s plans for manned missions grow nearer.

The SpaceX “garage” is the low building to the right in this image from this morning’s launch.

I toured the SpaceX facility at Cape Canaveral when I was covering the final Space Shuttle mission, and it’s efficiency is refreshing. Essentially, the prepared Falcon is towed out of garage-like facility a short distance to the launch pad, raised upright, fueled, and launched. There is a slight feel of, “Hey gang – let’s have a rocket launch!” But SpaceX have proven their functional model delivers results.
If the SpaceX approach comes across as no-frills, the description may be redefined by Inspiration Mars.

Official Inspiration Mars imagery.

Inspiration Mars is an initiative headed by Dennis Tito. The one-time NASA worker and current multimillionaire became the first “space tourist” a dozen years ago when he paid the Russians for passage to the International Space Station. But that Low Earth Orbit jaunt is nothing compared to what’s on his new agenda. If Tito and his team succeed with their development program, in five years a married couple will be on their way to a rendezvous with Mars.
While the Inspiration Mars vehicle will not join NASA’s Curiosity rover on the planet surface – the complexity of a landing will be dealt with in the future – the mission is designed to inspire future exploration and to present interplanetary exploration as a reality within our reach.

Artist Conception of the Inspiration Mars mission passing the Red Planet in August 2018.

Taking advantage of planetary alignments advantageous to a Martian visit, the mission is planned for a launch on January 5, 2018, passing by Mars at a 100-mile distance eight months later. Return to Earth would come in May, 2019.
Technical challenges? Certainly. But to me the most daunting aspect is life on the flight. I’ve flown cheap coach to Europe several times, so I can deal with no frills – but for hours, not months. Inspiration Mars demands a couple co-exist in a 600-square-foot inflated habitation module for a period of 18 months. Resource consumption must be kept to a minimum, luxuries virtually nonexistent. Mission planners believe a scientifically-oriented couple stands the best chance of succeeding as a crew.
In 2010 and 2011 six volunteers spent 520 days confined in a simulated space habitat near Moscow. With the lack of daily human rhythms and simple light cycles, the volunteers had difficulty sleeping and lost interest in fitness. Add in the stress of actual spaceflight, and it could turn out that the biggest obstacle to a Martian mission may be human rather than technological.
Regardless, Inspiration Mars should be fascinating to follow in the months to come.