NASA system tracks pre-launch shuttle preparations

NASA's Kennedy Space Center is developing a system that will integrate databases so that engineers can track via the Internet space shuttle work that was previously the space agency's responsibility but that now is performed by contractors.

With the new system, called Insight, engineers can view database reports from contractors who are performing work to prepare shuttle components for launch. NASA's Insight server runs on WebFocus, a software reporting and analysis tool from New York-based Information Builders Inc. WebFocus generates reports from databases and allows NASA engineers to access the reports via the World Wide Web with a standard browser, said Ronald Phelps, NASA's program manager for Insight system development.

Before every space shuttle launch, several tasks need to be performed on the three main shuttle components: the orbiter, the external tank and the rocket booster. For example, before launch, the orbiter's life support, hydraulic and cooling systems all have to be tested.

Before 1995, when NASA contracted with the United Space Alliance, a joint venture team composed of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., to perform all the pre-flight processing tests, NASA engineers accompanied contractors into the field to supervise the work.

Now, contractors perform the work without NASA supervision. However, NASA engineers still wish to have "insight" into how the work is performed, Phelps said. WebFocus was the tool that allowed engineers to track contractors' work.

"As we were converting to a performance-based contract... we realized that we were no longer going to be involved with the routine processing as far as the shuttle goes," Phelps said. "We're trying to look into the day-to-day operations without actually being there."

New Capabilities

The software allows NASA for the first time to integrate information between databases and between computer platforms, Phelps said, without requiring users to add an additional application for viewing data on their desktop.

WebFocus is designed to create an embedded link between existing Hypertext Markup Language pages and data residing in any database or any computer platform. When a user launches a report request, a WebFocus engine processes the request and automatically transforms the report to HTML format for display on any browser.

David Sandel, vice president of open systems at Information Builders, noted that WebFocus gave NASA a simple interface, scalablility and online access to data on various platforms, including legacy data. NASA also was seeking an inexpensive method to get information to a large number of employees, he said.

"NASA provides direction— when the next launch was, what [contractors] needed to deliver. Obviously lives depend on it," Sandel said. "What the customer sees is a point-and-click tool where they can see their reports."

WebFocus eventually may reduce the amount of pre-flight processing data NASA officials collect, Phelps said. "Maybe we'll find the [same] data is collected in two different areas or that the data that is collected may not be needed," he said.

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