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Formal Methods: To the Moon and Back!

I recently came across a rather interesting presentation by Gerard Holzmann (author of the SPIN model checker) who’s currently working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and previously worked at Bell Labs:

http://www.infoq.com/presentations/Scrub-Spin

One of the things he talks about his is a possible moon-landing in 2019, and the software required compared with that of the original landings in 1969. Back then, they ran around 10K of code on a machine with 36K ROM, 2K RAM with a 43KHz CPU. In contrast, they’re speculating that the 2019 mission will need 10M lines of code, running on a machine with 1GB RAM and a 1GHz clock cycle. The difference between them seems somewhat expected, I suppose. But, I rather like the point he makes about it: that the moon hasn’t changed mass, or orbit, etc; that the physics required to land on the moon is the same; so, why do we need so much more?

Speaking of the moon landings, you can now get audio and video for them from the NASA site here, and a transcript of the first landing here. The bit I really like from the transcript is:

102:38:21 Armstrong: Sure do. Houston, you’re looking at our Delta-H.

102:38:25 Duke: That’s affirmative.

[They have switched to a data readout which shows Houston the difference between their altitude as determined by the radar and the inertial estimate provided by the PGNS.]

102:38:26 Armstrong: (With the slightest touch of urgency) Program Alarm.

102:38:28 Duke: It’s looking good to us. Over.

102:38:30 Armstrong: (To Houston) It’s a 1202.

102:38:32 Aldrin: 1202. (Pause)

[Altitude 33,500 feet. In the 16mm film record, the lunar surface can be seen in the very bottom of Buzz’s window. As indicated in Figure 5-5 in the Mission Report, the LM is pitched back about 77 degrees at this time but will start coming noticeably more upright between now and P64.]

102:38:42 Armstrong (on-board): (To Buzz) What is it? Let’s incorporate (the landing radar data). (To Houston) Give us a reading on the 1202 Program Alarm.

[The 1202 program alarm is being produced by data overflow in the computer. It is not an alarm that they had seen during simulations but, as Neil explained during a post-flight press conference “In simulations we have a large number of failures and we are usually spring-loaded to the abort position. And in this case in the real flight, we are spring-loaded to the land position.”]

It seems amazing that this could have happened at such a critical moment, given how much money and time had been invested in this project. Well, actually, it doesn’t seem that amazing given what we know about software … it’s just another notch on the rather long list of near-software-disasters. I guess the real question is: what are they doing to prevent this from happening next time? Gerrard talks about this issue at length, and he argues that things certainly have improved…

UPDATE: It seems that the SPARK programming language is going to be involved in the lunar lander project, which is definitely a step in the right direction!

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