Tried and true

My laptop computer, with a recent repair to its internal power supply, is running well. It does what it needs to do: Word, Excel, Powerpoint, internet browsing, Google Earth, so I am happy. It is coming up on four years old, which is old for a laptop.

I guess NASA might feel the same way about the computers that control the space shuttles, as the computers are vintage 1980s! But they work. Here’s a few quotes from Space Shuttles Bound to Technologies of the Past in the Washington Post:

The shuttle fleet’s IBM computers have been upgraded once — in 1988-89.

The five main computers that run each shuttle have a memory of about 1 megabyte apiece, McDowell said. Today’s most basic home desktop computers come loaded with 20,000 times as much and have Pentium processors.

The testing of processors and computing equipment is extraordinarily rigorous, Carr and others said, and NASA has always placed reliability ahead of speed. A home desktop computer that crashes once a week is merely annoying, but a failed computer aboard a space shuttle could be catastrophic.

Computer chips and other components are subjected to intense bouts of radiation testing, and the software that runs the shuttles may be among the cleanest programs ever written.

Paradoxically, one reason that newer computer chips are superior — they pack more components and circuits into smaller spaces — can make them more vulnerable in space. A single cosmic ray, a stream of high-energy particles in space, might damage a large number of transistors in a densely packed chip, while previously it would have damaged only a few, McDowell said.

I suppose the space agency is caught in a bad position. If they upgrade, and then a shuttle has problems, they’ll say, “We should have stuck with the tried and true 1980s technology.” If they don’t upgrade, and then a shuttle has problems, they’ll say, “We should have upgraded.”

For me, I hope my laptop makes it through another year.

Grace and Peace

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