IG calls Space Station notebook code faulty

IG calls Space Station notebook code faulty

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

The software being developed for astronauts aboard the International Space Station to monitor environmental, power, communications and tracking systems is unreliable, according to NASA's assistant inspector general.

Problems with the Portable Computer System's software have been documented since 1996, the NASA IG's Office said in an Aug. 11 letter to the agency's associate administrators for safety and mission assurance, and space flight.

NASA managers are flummoxed by the report and have asked the IG's Office to reconsider its recommendations for the system, which runs on an IBM ThinkPad, NASA spokeswoman Kirsten Williams said.

'The report addresses a lot of issues and management practices that we have been paying attention to over the past few years,' Williams said. 'We have already been doing a lot of what the IG suggested.'

The notebook runs commercial and custom applications, said David M. Cushing, NASA's assistant IG for inspections, administrative investigations and assessments. The system's graphical user interface supplies information in both graphical and tabular formats.

The main display is designed to warn the crew when there are problems with space station systems, providing an alarm, a warning message and a graphical view of affected subsystems and their locations.

But the software has languished in development without adequate oversight, the memo said. There's been no independent evaluation of the software or of the development process because of schedule and personnel constraints, he said. And no one has studied whether graphical or tabular displays are more useful, he added.

'There is considerable risk that errors are not being detected during the current validation process,' Cushing said. He also found the data used to develop the displays contained erroneous or missing data, and that more than 500 program notes document the faulty information. Users have reported the inconsistent application of warning displays, he said. Navigation through windows and screens to perform a task is too cumbersome for time-critical problems, Cushing said.

In his memo, he recommended that NASA revamp its project management, beginning withan implementation of the integrated product team to direct the development.

He also suggested that the space agency develop a formal process for communication among users, software developers and project managers, establish independent verification of the software and use better development tools.

Time and again

As early as 1996, an independent review team found problems with the project management, Cushing noted. That review found that weak software engineering led to flaws in the display's design.

Two years later, an internal team at Johnson Space Center reported the same problems and also cited poor program management.

Recommendations from the earlier studies were either ignored or implemented piecemeal as problems occurred, Cushing said.

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