NASA discovers black hole here on Earth – in its software budget

Spaceport code already costs too much, behind schedule

While NASA can do some amazing things in space, back on the planet's surface its coders are less than stellar.

The US agency has spent four years developing code that will run its future Spaceport Command and Control System (SCCS) software. But an audit by its Office of Inspector General has found that the project's costs are up 77 per cent over budget, at $207.4m, and the completion point for the project has been kicked back more than a year to September 2017.

The report notes that rather than use commercial off-the-shelf software from a single supplier who might go out of business, NASA decided – as it has in the past – to use several different commercial systems and bind them together with its own code. While this sounded good, the results have been terrible.

So far NASA developers have written over 2.5 million lines of this "glueware" and will need another two years to get the system operational. By contrast, the operating system for the Hubble Space Telescope was managed to work with just 500,000 lines of glueware.

"NASA made its decision regarding the SCCS software architecture nearly 10 years ago, but in our view this may no longer be the most prudent course of action, given significant advances in commercial command and control software over that time," the report [PDF] states.

"In our judgment, the Ground Systems Development and Operations Program's reluctance to change course reflects a cultural legacy at NASA of over-optimism and over-promising what the Agency can achieve in a specific timeframe."

Furthermore, the code won't even work as originally planned. NASA engineers have cut out some functions of the application in order to cut down on development time.

This isn't the first time this has happened. Past attempts to develop control software for the Kennedy space center between 1995 and 2002 burned through $500m and change before the attempt was abandoned.

The new code is needed to handle the forthcoming Space Launch System, the rocket NASA hopes will take us to Mars. The first launch is due in November 2018, and the report suggests that the code will barely be ready in time, once testing and security certifications are complete.

That might not be such a problem however, since the SLS is facing its own serious delays. It may be as late as 2023 before NASA actually risks astronauts on the rocket, even if US Congress proves willing to continue pouring money into the project. ®

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