Mark Shuttleworth - January 16, 2002: computer woes - Today was the first ISS computer interfaces practical. There are a series of computer systems that run the ISS. There are the core, critical functions, sort of like the 'brain stem', and then there are more peripheral functions that run on less reliable systems. One of the more interesting lectures was the one where it was explained that the three core computer systems that were designed to run in triplicate as a multiple-redundant backup with hot failover proved so problematic that they now just run the thing on one computer. OK. Actually, that makes sense, as it's quick enough to switch to a second computer if the prime fails, and things tend either to happen slowly or kill you quickly, anyhow.
One of the core computer that has crew interfaces runs on a 386 and boots a version of DOS when you turn it on. That one has a nice clean UI that is pretty straightforward to navigate once you have an overview of the ISS systems. That's the base control station. Then there are the laptops, which can be plugged into any network port and used to control more high-level behaviour. Such as turning lights on and off. It's unusual to have to navigate three sets of menus and icons, and then to execute a command like 'IS_ONTBCVETT' to turn on a lightbulb. But that's how it works. Certainly, it's the most expensive lightswitch I've ever seen!
The nice thing about the computer UI's is that they can be toggled between Russian and English. Perhaps it would have been better to be trained on the ISS first... now that I KNOW that SOSH is the Russian abbreviation for lifesupport systems, I get it in English. OK. All the Soyuz labels were in Russian only. What's cool is the way the ISS basically has to do all the same things that the Soyuz had to do, so there are analogues for each of the systems in Soyuz, plus a few new systems to handle the complexity of the station. And of course, there's all the interfacing between the US and Russian segments. I'm really looking forward to Houston training next week on the US segment, to see how much they have in common.
The laptops are dual boot Solaris / Windows 95. THe control app runs under Solaris, the Windows partition is only used for data entry or housekeeping. The Solaris app is thin on the UI side, bt it seems fairly stable and consistent. Everything is stripped down to the minimum... I think it's running TWM or somesuch. Wouldn't like to try to get Enlightenment certified. The laptops are IBM thinkpads... quite an old model because of the time it takes to certify hardware for the ISS. Apparently, the laptops kept crashing from being overheated. On earth they are designed to use convection to remove heat. On earth, hot air rises, but in space that's no longer true. So the folks in NASA have apparently re-engineered the notebooks with stronger fans and better circulation to keep them cool for longer up there. Even so, it's recommended to keep them off as much as possible.
In the evening, we hosted a dinner party for some of the NASA folks based over here, partly to relax and partly to pick their very experienced brains about logistics and coordination for the project. The only folks from NASA out here at the moment are Chris Hadfield, an experienced astronaut who is currently Director of Operations for NASA in Star City, John McBrine, a legendary guy who has been part of NASA's team here on and off for about 8 years, and has seen just about EVERYTHING in the Shuttle-Mir and ISS programs first-hand, and JD Polk, flight surgeon extraordinaire. The evening turned out a huge success, with Roberto and Frank (the ESA astronauts in the Prophy) and some local friends coming along too. All in all we had a great time. And learned a lot. Dale and Karl are in a much better position now to plan the logistics of the payload and flight operations. Ended up playing pool and table tennis in Shep's Bar (which will get more detailed treatment in a future log) and laughing a lot. As John said, 'we can help you guys panic constructively'. We have a LOT of work to do to get all the equipment we need on the Progress cargo vehicle in Feb, and then get the in-flight operations planned out in detail by liftoff. But Dale C and Karl P are firing on all cylinders now and I'm confident they'll be up to the task.
Speaking of which, we are having a tough time trying to find a good notebook computer for my payload. Looks like we have to take an IBM. I had hoped to get the SONY Vaio that I'm using now certified, but it just turned out to be infeasible. Apparently the Italians are trying to certify a Vaio so that may yet happen. We'll see. I certainly won't have time to get the IBM modified ala NASA, so we'll just have to take our chances while up there. Run it on the slowest clock speed or something.