Tom Temin | Editor's Desk: Software's moonshot

Thomas R. Temin

When Lockheed Martin Corp. recently won a major competition to build a new generation of to-the-moon spacecraft, or Crew Exploration Vehicle, all I could think was: Lord, the software.

According to a spring article in Aviation Week and Space Technology, NASA engineers are planning to reuse elements of the space shuttle, Apollo and Saturn rocket programs. That's partly to save time and money and also because they are proven products.

NASA may still be using Saturn J2-derived rockets, but the computing resources on the Apollo program seem laughably primitive by today's standards. In the 1960s, memory and storage were orders of magnitude more expensive than today. Both ground and aloft circuitry were composed of discrete logic, not million-transistor microprocessors.

And yet those disciplined programmers had sufficient processing cycles and memory space to get a manned vehicle to the moon and back.

Today, a new Airbus probably has 1,000 times more processing capacity and code to run the cockpit displays than NASA had to run its whole program back in the day.

Software development is still too risky, buggy and unreliable to be called science. More than 20 years ago, a procurement VP for the old Douglas Aircraft Co. told me that he could reliably predict the schedule and quality of every piece of a DC-10'but not the software, which he referred to as witchcraft.
Similarly, there is not a single high-profile government IT program that hasn't foundered on the shoals of software.

NASA's return to glory, to the moon and beyond, will be powered by software. Whether the mission is accomplished safely, on time and within budget will be significantly dependent on reliable software development.

NASA birthed the expression, 'If they can put a man on the moon. ...' Rarely does such a real-life remake occur. It's a perfect opportunity to redo that line: 'If they can develop the software to put a man on the moon. ...' Anything would be possible. Even an FBI case file system.


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