Boeing developed software to improve space station lab usage

NASA recently recognized a Boeing team of engineers for their effort to develop an easy-to-use, web-based database system to operate the International Space Station Software Development and Integration Laboratory (SDIL) more efficiently.

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The effort, called the Support Systems Upgrade project, consolidated a number of diverse spreadsheets and localized data sources into a centralized database. The innovative usage of Open Source Software earned the Boeing team a NASA Johnson Space Center Exceptional Software Award.

The lab, located in the JSC Sonny Carter Training facility, is used for integration testing and certification of flight control software for the 50 computers used throughout the station. The lab is also used to conduct hardware “in the loop” testing and is used to help resolve station on-orbit anomalies. The flight control software controls virtually everything on the station, from electrical power, communications, payloads, life support systems, guidance, navigation, thermal control, and other systems that keep the station flying safely.

“We are making sure the flight software when uploaded to the station works perfectly the first time and that is why this lab is so important,” said Manfred Hornung, a Boeing ISS software engineering manager and a leader of the team project. “In a nutshell, we consolidated and integrated the way we operate the software laboratory.”

To set up a test in the laboratory, it could be a complex task especially when you have computers and subsystems interacting with one another.

“One of the problems was that there was no linkage between the different products so you could not get an overall picture of what was going on with the lab,” said Butch Gaston, a Boeing senior software engineer who designed the new web-based application. “You often had to go to different people and look at different databases and there were often data integrity problems since everything was separate.”

Typical tasks handled by the software include configuration management, scheduling testing tasks, metrics gathering and new automation capabilities that allow quick setup from one test to another. Under the old process, it would take two to four hours to reconfigure the laboratory following each software test, but now that the test configurations are pulled directly from the central database, the process only takes about 30 minutes.

Other improvements include faster loading times of only 20 minutes for the 50 flight computers when it used to take four hours. To change the software configuration rig setup, it used to take 75 different steps, but that has been reduced to only five manual steps – all the result of software automation. Another benefit has been that delays to use the lab because of setup issues have been eliminated and work flow has greatly improved. Boeing quality can now close work orders in only two days when it used to take as many as 15 days.

Several Boeing software-testing labs are supported continuously with the new web-enabled database system.

“We work with a wide variety of users including End-to-End testing with the ISS Mission Control Center about once a week to test software uploads to the ISS,” said Hornung.

Work on the project began in 2003 and NASA’s goal was to turn the laboratory into a world-class facility when advanced control rooms were added.

“My team’s contribution was to create new integrated tools that were web based that made it more convenient, visual and productive for the users of the lab,” said Hornung.

The entire project took approximately four years, with a number of incremental deliveries along the way. There were about five developers and about five others who provided testing and documentation of the new software tool set.

The NASA award is presented for innovative uses of new software, especially when it can have commercial applications or spinoffs. The award was presented to the Boeing team on June 17. The team has also been busy briefing the rest of Boeing about potential uses of this toolset in software labs in other business units.

“Our ideas were pretty successful and we would like to share and replicate that success in other areas of the company,” said Hornung. “We were championing the usage of Open Source Software and it turns out that we only had to write about ten percent of the code ourselves. The rest is out there like building blocks in Open Source Software, that you can use and build these applications. Our expertise is knowing what is out there and how to integrate it.” Although the finished software has been rolled out, Gaston says they will continue to improve it based upon user requests as well as patching any bugs that may be found. “I have a hard time understanding how the lab could have functioned without this new web-enabled application. Everyone seems to like the new tools because it helps them to handle a lot more tasks and to concentrate on the bigger tasks,” Gaston said

The customer is happy as well. In fact, Susan Creasy, head of NASA ISS Avionics and Software, summed it up with the words: “The ISIL-Completion Support Systems Upgrade turned out to be a very successful project and a terrific investment.”

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Updated: 07/15/2008