Software on the Space Shuttle comment? December 11, 2010 5:08 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me find this comment that described how software for the Space Shuttle is written?

Not sure when it was, but I remember it describing how the software is written in a general way, something like "it's written by two different teams, then cross checked to ensure its correct". I think that's how the comment started, can't remember the rest of it, other than it was fascinating. I realize this description may not be factually correct and directly contrasts with a comment I found that's linked to below. I'm just telling what you I remember in hopes that it rings someone's bell.

I did a search on mefi for "space shuttle software" and found this comment which tells of the actual group of people who write the software and their process of doing so, but it's not the comment I'm thinking of.

Is this ringing any bells for anyone? I'm almost 100% sure it was a comment, not a post.
posted by nomadicink to Feature Requests at 5:08 PM (21 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

Sorry, all MeTa posts this month are required to have a higher dose of crazy. Maybe try again after New Years?
posted by auto-correct at 5:15 PM on December 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm serious here, can we please not drag other stuff into this query? Thank you.
posted by nomadicink at 5:16 PM on December 11, 2010 [6 favorites]




There's also this (cite)?
This software never crashes. It never needs to be re-booted. This software is bug-free. It is perfect, as perfect as human beings have achieved. Consider these stats : the last three versions of the program -- each 420,000 lines long-had just one error each. The last 11 versions of this software had a total of 17 errors. Commercial programs of equivalent complexity would have 5,000 errors.

This software is the work of 260 women and men based in an anonymous office building across the street from the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake, Texas, southeast of Houston. They work for the "on-board shuttle group," a branch of Lockheed Martin Corps space mission systems division, and their prowess is world renowned: the shuttle software group is one of just four outfits in the world to win the coveted Level 5 ranking of the federal governments Software Engineering Institute (SEI) a measure of the sophistication and reliability of the way they do their work. In fact, the SEI based it standards in part from watching the on-board shuttle group do its work.

The group writes software this good because that's how good it has to be. Every time it fires up the shuttle, their software is controlling a $4 billion piece of equipment, the lives of a half-dozen astronauts, and the dreams of the nation. Even the smallest error in space can have enormous consequences: the orbiting space shuttle travels at 17,500 miles per hour; a bug that causes a timing problem of just two-thirds of a second puts the space shuttle three miles off course.

NASA knows how good the software has to be. Before every flight, Ted Keller, the senior technical manager of the on-board shuttle group, flies to Florida where he signs a document certifying that the software will not endanger the shuttle. If Keller can't go, a formal line of succession dictates who can sign in his place...
posted by yaymukund at 5:22 PM on December 11, 2010 [12 favorites]


Sorry! Reading comprehension fail
posted by yaymukund at 5:24 PM on December 11, 2010


I'm remembering an FPP about a guy that ran the Apollo projects in which a similar comment might have appeared. Definitely ringing bells.
posted by doublehappy at 5:28 PM on December 11, 2010


These aren't the comment you're after, but they might be of interest to you anyway unless your interest was in the structure of the programming teams. In which case this is spacenerd noise.

I went to Space Camp way back in 1997, to the camp in Alabama. The cool thing about Space Camp in Alabama is it takes place in Huntsville, at the US Space and Rocket Center, which has a huge garden of rockets, including a Saturn V on it's side, in sections and one of the Space Shuttle test vehicles.

Inside the museum, they have a ring from the command module of one of the canceled Apollo missions. It's huge. I remember it being twenty feet tall, the inside of the thick with heavy-looking electronics, wires, enclosed, sealed away from space. Our guide, Jeff, took us to it, pointed to the ring and said, "This ring holds the computing system of the command module. It has less computing power than your standard digital watch."

And they went to the moon with it.


and

gc, I was just at the Huntsville museum and saw that very ring. It's 260 inches in diameter and was not from the Command Module; it sat atop the third stage just below the adapter panels that hid the LEM during flight. It was responsible for inertial guidance for the first three stages only, and it's a good thing it was separate from the CM and LEM guidance because that's why Apollo 12 was able to recover after a lightning strike reset the CM flight controls during ascent. Not far from that ring today they have a little exhibit containing a few dissected bits of what's in that ring, one of which is the "main memory." It's an extremely finely machined magnetic drum assembly about a foot in diameter. You can see it cost many thousands of dollars to produce for what could have been at most a few hundred bytes of memory with access times in the multiple-millisecond range.

Today, of course, we have greatly innovated since those primitive times. Now the idea that you can build a computer that will Just Work and not randomly fail if you put enough care into the engineering seems rather quaint and innocent, like the misguided souls who think there ever really was a society like the one depicted in Leave it to Beaver.

posted by doublehappy at 5:32 PM on December 11, 2010


Thanks doublehappy, but those aren't it. Doing searchs for "apollo software" isn't hitting either, dammit.
posted by nomadicink at 5:42 PM on December 11, 2010


The source of the comment (which I can't find either) is likely either They Write the Right Stuff or Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle by Dick Feynman.
posted by Skorgu at 6:09 PM on December 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


We used to have a low-error real-time program in charge of a hugely expensive (relative to our budget) piece of equipment. Then they "upgraded" it and it completely sucks. Now they are writing a third version in Java.

Each version is an improvement on its successor.
posted by DU at 6:36 PM on December 11, 2010


Yeah, I too immediately thought of the "They Write The Right Stuff" article, which was so good I forwarded it to myself at work so it could be ignored by the development team.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 7:04 PM on December 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


this is an awesome metatalk.
posted by nadawi at 11:51 PM on December 11, 2010


This *is* an awesome Metatalk.
posted by Jofus at 12:03 AM on December 12, 2010


Doing a search for "space shuttle team" didn't find it, but I did come across this poster illustrating 50 years of space exploration, a zoomable picture of space and the Orion nebula, so yay.

Santa, all I want for Christmas is that comment and a spaceship.
posted by nomadicink at 5:30 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's something from NASA describing the process of developing software for Apollo. Again, this is not quite what you're looking for, but still interesting.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:02 AM on December 12, 2010


That's cool and thanks, but I really am looking for a comment I believe is on Metafilter. Damn old age.
posted by nomadicink at 7:31 AM on December 12, 2010


Describe in detail how it made you feel. Perhaps we can reverse-engineer it.
posted by Jofus at 11:24 AM on December 12, 2010


I'm not sure about the comment, but it sounds very much like it could have been a summary (or even a direct quote) from Richard Feynman's memoirs regarding the investigations into the Challenger disaster. He was extremely impressed with the way the software was developed and went out of his way to make sure his readers would be as well.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:19 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


While "They Write the Right Stuff" is probably what you're looking for, Richard P. Gabriel's Lessons From The Science Of Nothing At All provides additional context and perspective.
posted by dws at 3:40 PM on December 12, 2010


Bummer, searching for "Feynman space shuttle software" didn't bring up any comments.
posted by nomadicink at 3:47 PM on December 12, 2010




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