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Local-Area Networking Provides a Boost to Shuttle's Administrative-Support Staff.

While local-area networking has proved itself for many corporations by boosting productivity and holding down the cost of doing business, at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, the impact of this office technology extends far beyond a financial bottom line. NASA's Space Transportation System--the space shuttles--involves thousands of engineers, scientists and managers in a commercial venture that's also a matter of international visibility and national pride.

Supporting the space shuttle venture is a sophisticated array of office automation and communications equipment that includes some 100 professional workstations and personal computers linked by 12 Xerox Ethernet local communications networks. In addition, internetwork communications provide for rapid exchange of documents--including graphics--between the Houston center and Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Commenting on the power provided by this integrated office system, Eugene Kranz, director of Mission Operations, says, "We thought we were buying into a very good system, but in fact it has even more capabilities than we were led to expect."

Currently the backbone of the United States manned space program, the shuttle project is unlike any in NASA's 26-year history, serving a worldwide communications satellite market and a growing customer base. Each mission costs millions of dollars and is closely followed by current and future customers, the US and foreign governments, and shuttle aficionados around the world.

According to Kranz, the challenges for office automation within this environment are uniquely compelling. "When you get down to seven days before a launch, you just can't afford to have delays in obtaining critical information," he points out.

Shuttle operations are planned and controlled primarily from the Johnson Space Center, 25 miles southeast of Houston. With many of its aerospace and computer system contractors located nearby, the space center is the hub of a thriving high-tech community. Local Networking Tested

When Mission Operations selected the Ethernet network as the skeleton of its office automation two years ago, it initiated the first test of local networking on this high-pressure proving ground.

The organization's need for the network system and a sophisticated office automation strategy stemmed from the size and scope of its pre-mission preparation task. For each launch, Mission Operations is responsible for a complex set of plans and procedures that integrate factors such as payload objectives and requirements, vehicle capabilities and availabilities, crew data, training schedules and launch times, in addition to specifications of orbit, ascent, descent and thousands of other flight details.

The task is further complicated by the growing number of shuttle missions. At any one time, there can be up to 20 missions entering the flight-specific phase immediately preceding a launch.

Yet as recently as two years ago, most administrative-support tasks for the shuttle were performed in what one NASA official describes as a highly conventional fashion. Volumes of technical documentation were produced for each mission on electric typewriters and first-generation word processors, with graphics added by the "cut-and-paste" method. Statusing was accomplished through daily meetings and many hours on the telephone.

Kranz describes the technology gap that was emerging at Mission Operations: "We had incredible technology to support the space mission, but were back in the Stone Age our communications and management-support processes.

"Eventually, the discrepancy between the demands of the job at hand and our administrative-support resources produced a series of bottlenecks," Kranz recalls. "It became apparent that we needed to take the kind of technology that existed throughout the STS (Space Transportation System) flight project itself, and apply it to our management-support functions."

The first administrative-support acquisition for Mission Operations was a videoconferencing network to be used for meetings, daily statusing, emergency planning and "touching base." Then in 1982, the organization began investigating systems for automating production of the mass of documentation generated for each STS mission.

While office automation was new to Mission Operations, the systems under consideration were not. Explains Kranz: "Most of our group were quite familiar with the technology of these systems, although the applications were different. We took the time to define our requirements in considerable detail, which allowed us to begin utilization of the system immediately."

Because of the lengthy documentation process for each STS mission, improving productivity for that function became a priority requirement. Mission Operations also needed a network that could interface with existing information processing system without reducing their effectiveness. Finally, the system had to be able to operate within a classified environment.

The final decision was made after terminal-to-terminal communications was evaluated. Although a seemingly secondary factor for Mission Operations, this factor tipped the scales towards the Xerox 8000 NS (network system).

The first of the networks was delivered to the space center in July 1982. Since that time, Mission Operations has been joined by Mission Planning and Analysis, Flight Crew Operations and three NASA contractors in using the networks for shuttle-related activities.

Nine networks are located at the Johnson Space Center and adjacent contractor offices; the others are at Ellington Air Force Base and the Kennedy Space Center. Together, the 12 networks include approximately eighty 8010 Star information processing systems and twenty 820 personal computers. Most of the internetwork routing is accomplished by line-driver modems.

According to Kranz, it took only weeks before Mission Operations began to realize the power of the network system. For example, it markedly improved productivity in the development of technical publications. And more than a dozen engineers and several workstation operators use it for producing and updating the Flight Data File, a multi-volume document that the crew uses on board the vehicle during a shuttle mission.

Internetwork routing has also reduced the need for courier service between Flight Crew Operations at Johnson and the base at Ellington, five miles away. One Ellington secretary notes that "since our workstations have been internetwork routed, many documents are transmitted fully formatted over the net." Coordinating Shuttle Missions

More than a year before each launch, Mission Operations begins coordinating the work of hundreds of professionals, all focused toward a single launch date. With 10 missions originally scheduled for 1984, increasing to one every two weeks by late 1986, the 8000 NS has assumed a critical role in providing the information required for team functioning.

John O'Neill, chief of the Operations Division, explains, "We take all of the data we have for each mission, such as payload requirements, vehicle information, and schedules for training, simulations and real-time flights, and we convert it into an information flow on the 8000 system. All of this data lives, and I emphasize lives, on Ethernet. The system lets people know the task that are facing them and the deadlines they must meet on a daily basis."

Responsibility for breaking down each mission into a set of daily operation schedules, along with coordinating and updating flight status plans, is held by the Action Control Center. To manage these functions, this center develops and maintains the Flight Operations Planning Schedule, a master data-base and scheduling system that integrates data from every area supporting a mission.

Actual scheduling is performed on a mainframe, with individual schedule documents developed manually on a Star 8010 workstation. Schedules are then updated, distributed and stored on the 8000 NS through the completion of each mission.

At any one time, more than 100 schedules are resident on the system, stored on a 300-megabyte file server. Each morning from 7 to 9 am and again in the late afternoon, major schedules for the week are displayed in a continuous loop on closed-circuit television monitors located in the lobby of each major building. Schedule modifications made during the day are immediately input on a Star work-station. Authorized staff throughout Mission Operations and Flight Crew Operations can also access schedules directly.

According to Donald Bray, manager of the Action Control Center, many of the schedule and time-line documents currently used by Mission Operations could not have been generated before the installation of the network system. Documents similar to those now created on the system would have required typing, hand-drawn graphics and cut-and-paste preparation before being sent to the print shop--a cycle that could take up to a month. And major modifications to a schedule would have started the cycle all over again.

Now, Bray points out, shuttle schedules, including graphics, are produced in less than two hours and updated as needed in as little as 10 minutes.

To eliminate re-keying mainframe data onto the 8010, Bray plans to tie the two systems together using Xerox communications software and hardware, as well as software for the mainframe. Once the two systems are linked, data on the mainframe, including some graphics, will be computer driven directly onto a Star system to be formatted, stored and distributed electronically on Ethernet.

Successful implementation of the 8000 NS by Mission Operations was only the beginning of local-area networking to support the shuttle, as other functional areas at the Johnson Space Center began acquiring 8000 systems as well. Mission Planning and Analysis, which is responsible for flight design and post-mission analysis, converted from a word processing system to 12 networked 8010s for the production of its highly technical presentations.

Shortly after that, Flight Crew Operations installed four of the network systems to link its operations at Johnson, Ellington and the Kennedy Space Center. Within the STS program, FCO manages the Astronaut Office, Vehicle Integration and Aircraft Operations. For its considerable liaison responsibilities between the Johnson Space Center and several remote sites, FCO has developed 8000 NS communications to tie its operations together.

In April of this year, the 8000 NS played its first pre-launch communications role for Flights Crew Operations. During the final days before a launch, many Johnson Space Center staff relocated to Cape Canaveral. In the past, the Astronaut Office transported many of its paper files to the cape, and yet considerable time was spent on the telephone obtaining additional information from the organization's Houston office. Like Taking the Office Along

"For example," one staff member explains, "one week before the launch, the astronauts go into quarantine, requiring that each of their contacts be cleared and badged in advance. Because we could not take our entire file system with us to the cape for each mission, clearance records were among those that remained in the Astronaut Office in Houston. We were able to access those records over the phone, but only during Houston office hours. Now, with internetwork routing between the Kennedy and Johnson space centers, it's like taking our whole office with us."

Perhaps the most dramatic application of the network system at Johnson occurs during the course of a mission. From the instant the booster rockets ignite, Mission Operations enters a real-time mode, in which decisions must frequently be made in a matter of minutes. During the mission, an "anomaly log" is maintained on an 8010 workstation tracking every problem that occurs and showing who is working on it--providing an up-to-the-minute problem status.

As anomalies are noted by each controller in the Mission Control Center, they are described on paper and sent through a pneumatic tube to an operator of a dedicated workstation. The operator then keys the information into the anomaly log table format. As further information is obtained, the log is promptly updated.

Data maintained in the log can be sorted for further analysis by time of occurrence or type of problem. It can also be compared to anomaly information from past missions stored in the network system. During the mission, the anomaly log is accessed directly as needed and is also printed out on a laser printer for mission status meetings each month. Communications with the Cape

Two remote 8010 Stars are installed at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Communication between the Astronaut Office in Houston and the Florida space center emerges with graphics and format intact. As a member of the staff in Houston put it, "To the Astronaut Office at Johnson, the cape looks like a network down the hall."

Most managers at Mission Operations agree that local-area networking at the Johnson Space Center will continue to grow. Already, three directorates--Mission Operations, Flight Crew Operations and Mission Planning and Analysis--have intercommunicating networks and are also tied directly to the office of the director of Space Operations.

As John O'Neill put its, "Basically, these network systems have gotten us off the telephone."

With new applications for the system developing continually, O'Neill predicts network expansion into new management areas. "Personnel at headquarters have become aware of the ways in which we can manage information on the system," he notes.

"I think there will be increasing reliance on local networking to keep management apprised of hot spots, trends and potential pressure points."

But perhaps Astronaut Ken Mattingly Best understands the role of distributed networks in the office of the future. In advocating an entirely electronic communications network, Mattingly maintains, "We will never recognize the real significance of a system until we put a workstation on every professional's desk and get rid of paper."

Mattingly has jokingly proposed taking a workstation on his next shuttle mission, dropping a cable back to NASA, as an alternative to taking mission notes by hand. It's unfortunate that the cost of cable prohibits that particular network configuration!
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Communications News
Date:Nov 1, 1984
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