Sunday, December 10, 2006

Cool Picture, But What's Up with the Computers?

This is one of the coolest news photographs of recent memory, showing the Space Shuttle Discovery's launch this evening.

Very cool photograph, indeed. But I also noticed in the news a few days ago some discussion of the current launch window, and the reasons why the shuttle launch needed to happen fairly soon. It seems that the shuttle's computer system, which was designed 30 years ago, is incapable of dealing with that annual celebration known as New Year's Eve. Just like the much-feared "Y2K" problem featured computers which couldn't handle the changeover from one century to the next, our most-advanced space craft cannot handle the changeover from one year to the next.

Were the shuttle to find itself in orbit on New Year's Eve, the entire computer system would need to be rebooted while in space. Even if the reboot went off without a hitch, the shuttle would still face "... a period without navigation updates or vehicle control". Which, to put it mildly, hardly seems like an ideal situation.

With tonight's launch, it looks like crew of Discovery will return from their 12-day mission with more than enough time to spare, allowing them to attend the first-ever raising of "The Future of Pittsburgh" during our First Night festivities. I bet they can't wait.

Now if someone could please explain to me why the Space Shuttles are being controlled with computers that are less advanced than the Commodore 64 -- or even the Atari 2600 game system -- that I had back in early 1980s... well, I still wouldn't be a very happy taxpayer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

New isn't always better. Older systems have weird-seeming problems, but they are programmed close to the metal, and you have to give a system that's still working 30 years later at least some kudos for reliability. I shudder to think how a shuttle computer system built on any of the vastly-more-complex modern OSes would behave in orbit.