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INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION 20TH ANNIVERSARY HEWLETT PACKARD ENTERPRISE (SPONSORED CONTENT)
By Norm Follett in collaboration with Dr. Mark R. Fernandez
From the moment we learned to raise our heads, our eyes have always drifted upwards. The beauty, the wonder, and the unknown mystery of what might hover above have seemingly always drawn humankind beyond the boundaries of Earth. During the 1960s, the United States competitively pursued the reality of leaping beyond the blue to the vastness of what might be. Fast forward several decades and the United States, working cooperatively with the global scientific community, continues to pursue this dream. At the forefront of the technology that steered the journey of our early space explorers was the company that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded. From navigational tracking systems that monitored the Apollo spacecraft to diodes and pin switches in the suits of Armstrong and Aldrin, the company that carries their names continues to drive technology exploration with the intent of making physical space exploration a reality.
It could be argued as to what was the first commercially available “computer” to journey into space. Was it Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s (HPE) Spaceborne Computer system (SBC) in 2017? Or perhaps it was Bill and Dave’s answer to address the need for on-board orbital rendezvous calculations during the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission – the HP65 calculator? Or the GRiD laptop computer that flew aboard the space shuttle in the 1980s? There can be no doubt, however, that the 657 days that the SBC system spent aboard the ISS demonstrated that a modern, commercially available computer system could be successfully integrated into a space-based flight system in a timely fashion.
The significance is multi-faceted. As we have moved beyond asking ourselves “can we do it” to “can we can afford it,” the technical and fiscal impact is huge across every space exploration project. The ability to leverage market dynamics and technological innovations and apply them in a real-time, affordable format to spaceflight ultimately allows our scientific capabilities to extend and evolve. As a result, the most sophisticated craft of its day, such as the Endeavor in the ‘90s, will no longer be forced to fly with dated equipment to support computational activity. This was a spacecraft design decision dictated by development, test, and cost constraints. By removing the burden of developing proprietary computer systems for space exploration from government agencies and aerospace contractors and shifting the computer need to private-sector companies who specialize in the field, the results are technically advanced, fiscally prudent, and flight schedule friendly.
Launched on SpaceX CRS-12 on Aug. 14, 2017, the SBC program evolved from an “experiment” to delivering “in mission” operational computer value. Exceeding original mission objectives, this self-contained, water-cooled, and solar-powered system enjoyed an 8-month mission extension, where additional computational tasks, not previously scoped, were performed at the request of NASA and its partner agencies. This included the monitoring and measurement of the landing of InSight on the surface of Mars in 2019. The final flight log of SBC is impressive – 53,936 experiments executed flawlessly during the course of 9,562 orbits while dealing with 6,879 South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA) crossings.
During its 20 years of flight, the ISS has always benefited from being a mere 240 miles or so from the world’s greatest computer resources. While the addition of on-board super computer capability is a significant upgrade to on-board experimentation and research possibilities, it was not necessarily the core mission of the SBC program. Consistent with NASA and the international space community’s goal of using the ISS as a platform to prepare for deeper exploration of space, the SBC system proved that the latest computer technologies available to the market can be integrated into space missions where that capability is considered critical. Take, for example, the upcoming exploration of Mars. At its aphelion with Earth, a 40-minute-plus communication delay could not only make research difficult on Mars, but also prove to be potentially dangerous to the crew. State-of-the-art, high-end computer capability on these explorations is certainly considered mission critical and a key to success.
Consistent with the educational spirit of the ISS and its contributing agencies, the “flight of Spaceborne Computer” was shared globally. Outfitted with a prototype version of the SBC system and a direct active link to the station, HPE “landed” a scale replica of the Destiny module at technology events around the world. Delighted space enthusiasts and future explorers in locations such as Paris, London, Barcelona, Munich, Dallas, and more were able to step aboard the U.S. laboratory module and inspect the results of on-board computer experimentation while getting a sense for what it might be like to live and work aboard the station. Who knows what scientific curiosity or perhaps greatness was inspired among the 50,000-plus to visit the terrestrial version of Destiny while actively linking in real time to the ISS?
At the invitation of NASA, HPE is busily preparing for a return to the station with its Spaceborne Computer-2 (SBC) system. With advanced HPE Edgeline and Apollo DL360 systems on board, that mission will expand upon the first mission’s success, allowing crew and core ISS researchers to take advantage of on-board state-ofthe-art Artificial Intelligence (AI) and High Performance Compute (HPC) capabilities. In addition to ISS researchers, earthbound scientists in commercial and educational sectors will also be able to take advantage of these capabilities as well. Following the example of the Space Shuttle Program’s Get Away Special (GAS) student program, computer cycles will be made available to educational institutions to allow students the opportunity to experiment in an extraterrestrial environment.
SBC’s core “TeamOfSeven,” our extended ground support team, and all of the employees at Hewlett Packard Enterprise congratulate the thousands of people in the international scientific community who have contributed to the tremendous success of the first 20 years of the International Space Station. With the Spaceborne Computer-2 program undergoing flight certification and manifested for launch aboard NG15 on Feb. 1, 2021, we are not only proud to have contributed to the first 20 years of the station’s history, but look forward to leaping back aboard and being part of the next 20 years of the International Space Station’s scientific leadership, achievement and success.