NASA strengthens software approach

The software and management problems that contributed to the loss of the two Mars spacecraft in 1999 convinced NASA's chief information officer that it was time to make changes.

Lee Holcomb briefed senior NASA managers last month on a plan to improve NASA's software development and management. He hopes to raise the bar for NASA's internally developed and purchased software with a four-part plan that will be implemented quickly and aggressively. A business plan will be delivered to Congress June 1.

"Research could do a lot to provide tools to improve the productivity of building software," Holcomb said. "We face the same problem everyone faces — the need for talent. We also have fallen in terms of Carnegie Mellon's [software] Capability Maturity Model."

The CMM, developed by the federally funded Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. It is a way to assess an organization's overall software engineering practices, with a focus on documented, repeatable processes that carry over from program to program

NASA will have technical guidelines and procedures for software development in about two months, Holcomb said. During that same period, the agency will use a more vigorous independent verification and validation program. Holcomb expects to see a measured improvement in six months by avoiding a mission failure.

Overall, he plans to improve the process NASA and its contractors use to develop software for space missions. The civil servant work force will be well versed in managing software development, and software vendors will be expected to achieve CMM Level 3 or higher.

More than 90 percent of NASA's IT investment is outsourced, he said.

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