Key space station tech still weak

"Assessment of the Portable Computer System and the Data Display Process,G-99-010A"

Problems still exist in the development of displays for the International

Space Station's primary command and control computers, NASA's Inspector

General reported this month.

In an Aug. 11 report on the Portable Computer System and Data Display Process

for the space station, NASA's IG said display development still has significant

weaknesses that impact usability and reliability of the PCS. The problems

exist despite efforts that have been made since the mid-1990s to improve

problems with the software and display development.

The on-board PCS is a commercial laptop computer modified for flight use

and loaded with commercial and custom software, according to the IG memo

to NASA officials. It is the crew's primary interface for command and control

of the space station and provides the crew with caution and warning information

for the station. The PCS displays consist of graphical and nongraphical,

or tabular, formats.

Problems identified by the IG included the inability of the crew to know

about erroneous data. In addition, users have difficulty navigating windows

and screens to perform a task based on the display design. The IG recommended

constant crew involvement in the development of the displays to guarantee

the best, most efficient human/computer interface.

"The ISS program does not have a coordinated, well-defined process for software

engineering and software management," the report said. "The lack of such

a process results in numerous problems with requirements control, configuration

management, cost and schedule estimates and defect prevention."

The report included 11 recommendations to improve the management, tools

and software development process for the displays, but the IG did not think

NASA management's reply was responsive.

Joseph Rothenberg, NASA associate administrator for Space Flight, replied

in writing that many of the recommendations reflect activities that are

already under way. He suggested the IG reconsider the recommendations.

NASA is developing tools to improve its processes and shorten its display

development time, Rothenberg said in his letter. He also said a software

management plan has been in negotiations for the several months and is in

the final stages of approval.

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