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Taming software complexity is critical

Taming software complexity is critical

Since Design News last interviewed NASA Administrator Dan Goldin (see DN 1/3/00, p. 160), the agency has seen well publicized failures (with Mars probes) and great success with space station construction and utilization. Here is Part I of an exclusive update on his perspective of these events and where our aerospace efforts are headed.

Design News: What specific lessons has NASA learned in the wake of the Mars probe failures?

Goldin: First, no apologies for the Mars probe failures. There is too much focus on them. Yes, we had some problems, but when you have a [technology] revolution, you are going to have some failures, and you've got to put it in that context. Our folks have done a fantastic job-we've launched about $20 billion worth of payloads into space and lost about a half billion. The Mars probes were about $300 million of that.

The issues are not technical-to the extent that people think there were some software errors that could easily be fixed. The issue is we can no longer go on with deterministic computing-where software is predetermined to preset conditions, so you write each and every line of code, you validate each and every line of code, and you check its connectivity-as compared to software that is model-based, written in 'soft computing'-neural networks and fuzzy logic along with flexible algorithms. The dilemma is not that there was an error in the software-there's going to be software errors in deterministic computing-the problem is that the number of lines of code has been rising astronomically.

We need a revolution in software coding. We have formed a high-assurance software consortium in Silicon Valley and are signing up a bunch of companies to start looking at these new approaches-so the software will become tolerant when errors occur in it. As a result, you'll be able to live with errors.

Q: Did personnel drawdowns and retirement of experienced people contribute to the Mars errors?

A: I don't believe so. We went from a few large programs to a large number of small programs; how do you train the next generation of leaders as this is happening?

We are transitioning NASA from having decade-long programs, that were invested with billions of dollars, to an agency that has programs that are relatively small and numerous. And as the Apollo generation of workers retires we have to have an accelerated training program because you will no longer be able to get on-the-job training [on a single, long-term program].

Q: Any other impact of the Mars events on the "faster, better, cheaper" mode of operation at NASA?

A: Hell, no! I defy you to find an organization with a track record like 150 missions launched, 10 failures. Faster, better, cheaper was absolutely the right thing to do. We broke things into smaller pieces. We then had a tolerance to lose things and to push the boundaries.

Q: What would you say to critics who would question space exploration benefits versus the cost?

A: Get a grip! The space program is about rewriting chemistry, physics, and biology textbooks; it's about inspiration; it's about intellectual satisfaction and stimulation; it's about doing exploration never done before; and it's about America-this is what we do!

Q: Speaking about the future, at the end of January, the new President calls you in...

A: I will not comment on what the next President ought to do. It is not for the NASA Administrator to tell the next President what to do.

Q: But if he asks you to stay on, would you?

A: I serve at the pleasure of the President.

Daniel S. Goldin , Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The longest serving NASA administrator, Goldin's "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy has transformed the agency. According to NASA: it and Congress have produced a cumulative budget savings of over $40 billion, and cut the civil service workforce by about a third, without forced layoffs; quadrupled the number of missions launched per year; the agency and contractors have reduced spacecraft costs by two thirds (along with a 40% cut in development time); and chopped a third off Space Shuttle costs-while improving safety and mission capabilities. Prior to coming to NASA, Goldin was Vice President and General Manager of TRW's Space and Technology Group.

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