NASA Flight Controllers Become AI Pioneers FOR THE BETTER PART of three decades now, first for Apollo and more recently for the space shuttle, flight controllers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Johnson Space Center in Houston have been staring into a nightmare of user unfriendliness: monochrome computer screens covered with column after column of cryptically shifting acronyms. This mainframe-processed telemetry data is supposed to tell them whether or not their particular subsystem of the shuttle is headed for disaster--and even the old-timers have been known to miss things.
All that is beginning to change, however. Starting with the shuttle's first post-Challenger launch in September 1988, the normally cautious controllers have been stepping straight from the technology of the 1960s to the technology of the 1990s: high-powered workstations, high-resolution color graphics, the works. They are even taking the plunge into artificial intelligence (AI), a software technology that still has more of a reputation for hype than for practical accomplishment.
"It's been tremendous fun," says John F. Muratore, a veteran of 17 shuttle missions as chief communications officer and now the prime mover behind the change-over. The color graphics alone make an enormous difference, he says. Instead of watching inscrutable alphanumerics, the controller sees a color-coded schematic diagram of, say, the shuttle's communication system or its main engines. If anything goes wrong, the AI-based software displays a variety of diagnostic messages and causes the affected components to light up red. The problem is virtually impossible to miss.
While only a handful of the older consoles have been replaced so far, says Muratore--each piece of new software first has to be tested and compared with its older counterpart by operating in parallel on a real flight--the response from the controllers themselves has been very positive. "The pace of implementation is actually accelerating, not...
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