We Have A Problem
You think data management is crucial to your enterprise? NASA counts on mass storage and data analysis solutions to formulate tens of millions of dollars in contractor bids and to safely launch spacecraft on time.
by Ed Hess
One hundred thirty. The sound of a gunshot at close range measures 130 decibels and causes ears to ring. Prolonged exposure to this level of sound causes intense pain and most to walk away deaf. Take it up to 180 decibels, and no one walks away. Sound penetrates the body, shakes air-filled lungs like church bells, and eventually causes them to hemorrhage. It's the kind of sound that kills. And, it's the kind of sound that NASA must account for with every Space Shuttle launch.
While onlookers crane their necks upward watching the Space Shuttle outrace the plume of exhaust it leaves behind on its journey to space, NASA engineers on the ground are busy recording data from the launchpad. The same 180-decibel sound blast that can kill a person can also shake launchpad equipment to the point of failure and set off car alarms in surrounding areas. To prevent these and other negative scenarios from occurring, a group of NASA engineers pore through post-launch data gathered from more than 500 instruments at ground level. Additionally, the results of this data analysis are incorporated into equipment contracts worth millions of dollars. "The data used in equipment specifications has to be perfect," says Raoul Caimi, NASA's lead engineer, launch systems testbed. "We don't want to pay for over-engineered equipment. But, if we purchase equipment and it fails during testing, then we have a real problem."
Environment Can Destroy Your Data
Six. The hot and humid Florida climate took a serious toll on the magnetic tapes that were stored for six years in the blockhouses that were once used to view rocket launches. No one at NASA gave much thought to the data stored on the tapes much less to the harsh environment in which they were housed. That all changed when NASA upgraded to the Advanced Launch System, which required engineers to analyze data from the Apollo program and the first few Shuttle launches. When the engineers discovered unworkable paper reports were all that remained from the Apollo program, they quickly scrambled to get their hands on the Shuttle tapes. "We got to the tapes, and that's when we saw that they were starting to degrade and break. We were losing some information and were at risk of losing much more," recalls Caimi.
With the integrity of the magnetic tapes in serious question, engineers turned to the paper form of the data. However, the three-ring binder that contained 800 pages of reports and data from the first Shuttle launches was simply impractical. If Caimi needed data from a piece of equipment used on the orbiter access arm (the level where astronauts enter the Shuttle), he had to turn to the binder. Even after hours of searching through the binder, there was no guarantee he would find the data or that the data was even in the binder at all. "There had to be a better way," says Caimi in a moment of understatement.
Web Browser Offers Instant Access
Two thousand seven hundred. With duties ranging from IT support to custodial services, SGS (Space Gateway Support) and its 2,700 direct and contracted employees work behind the scenes at NASA. It was three years ago when SGS won the $250 million annual contract to support Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Center, Patrick Air Force Base, and the Naval Ordinance Test Unit. Under JBOSC (Joint Base Operations and Support Contract), SGS provides support and solves problems. "We are involved with IT and physical security, we provide the fuel for the Shuttles, and we support and maintain NASA's IT infrastructure," comments Michael Butchko, president of SGS. "We don't launch spacecraft; but they don't launch them without us."
With its broad range of responsibilities, SGS was the first place Caimi turned to for a solution to the data management problems facing engineers. The immediate goal was to salvage the data stored on magnetic tape and port it to optical media, which is more stable and can be stored in jukeboxes. The long-term goal was quick access to the data using a relational database and a Web browser front end with search capabilities. "The engineers wanted to search the data according to type (e.g. strain, pressure, acoustic, vibration), location (e.g. launchpad, surrounding area, elevation), and other variables," remembers Phil Gemmer, senior systems analyst, InDyne Inc./SGS. "The three-ring binder would be a thing of the past. Going forward, they would be much more accurate and productive."
Opting For Optical Over RAID
Two. In evaluating storage strategies to accommodate the demands of NASA's engineers, the SGS team felt it had two viable options - RAID (redundant array of independent disks) and optical. The hard disk arrays that comprise RAID systems offer instant access and varying levels of fault tolerance. Optical media is more stable and portable. In the end, many factors led SGS to implement an optical storage solution. "We had a Hewlett-Packard jukebox on-site; we needed the media to be portable, and we thought the Shuttle program was nearing its completion and a big investment in RAID wasn't warranted. Our budgets are tight. If we had unlimited funds, our decision might have been different," explains Gemmer.
Even if the decision were different, Gemmer claims the outcome would have been almost identical. The jukebox currently houses 120 optical discs with a storage capacity of 2.6 GB on each. Gemmer and his crew created a relational database among measurements, measurement descriptions, and the actual data stored on the discs. Using a browser interface, engineers can use keyword searches to quickly access data collected from the 100-plus Shuttle launches. Backed up by DLTtape, the entire system is powered by KOM Networks' (www.komnetworks.com) OPTI-SERVER. The storage management software presents the jukebox as one logical device where engineers view it as an extra hard drive on their PCs, drag files from it, and perform searches. "The search routines come back immediately. The engineers then download the data they need and use it in their statistical applications," comments Gemmer. "The reliability of the system is phenomenal. I can't ever remember having any downtime with the system or optical disc failures."
You Can't Put A Price On Uptime
Twenty. The Shuttle program was never supposed to last 20 years, but two-decade old orbiters and launchpads are still in use at the Kennedy Space Center. Every year, as many as 10 Shuttle missions blast off and return to earth where countless man-hours are spent preparing the Shuttle for its next safe launch. The public sees the Shuttle, International Space Station, and dramatic images of space. Engineers at NASA have a different perspective. They are charged with making the public perception a reality, and that requires working with something less glamorous - data.
"The technology we implement has a value, but the money it saves is incalculable," says SGS' President Michael Butchko. "You must have a quick turnaround on data to identify and solve problems before the next mission. If you identify a problem once the Shuttle is on the pad, it's way too late. You will have wasted the millions of man-hours it took to get the Shuttle to that point. The ability of the United States to safely launch spacecraft on a predictable schedule is critical."
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the value and truth in that statement.
Questions about this article? E-mail the author at EdH@corrypub.com.