When NASA launches a space shuttle or pulls off a dramatic, high-wire maneuver that brings a scientific probe into orbit around a distant planet, TV news reports typically show the jubilant faces of mission managers at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
Rarely, if ever, do the engineers at the agency’s Independent Verification and Validation Facility (IV&V) in Fairmont, W. Va., get public kudos for their contribution to these successes. But they often play a crucial role by searching for defects in the hundreds of thousands of lines of software code that are written for complex space missions.
On one space shuttle mission — they cannot say which one — the IV&V team discovered a flaw in software designed to automatically restart the craft in the event of a power failure. Had the defect gone undetected, the orbiter’s thermal protection system could have faltered, resulting in a failed mission, according to documents provided by the facility.
Instances like these are precisely why the IV&V center was established. One of the recommendations of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, was that NASA establish an independent center to review software for critical agency missions. In 1991, Congress appropriated $12.4 million for that purpose, and the facility officially opened for business in June 1994. Fairmont was chosen as the location thanks largely to the efforts of the powerful U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), who at the time was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Byrd arranged it so that West Virginia University in Morgantown would own the 5,110-square-meter IV&V building, which rests atop a hill on 4.9 hectares (12 acres) of land, and act as the landlord. Though the area was rather isolated back then, it is part of what is now called the I-79 technology corridor, home to such enterprises as the Lockheed Martin Fairmont State Training Center and the National White Collar Crime Center.
If it were not for a sounding rocket that only recently was put on display in front of the IV&V center’s entrance, passersby might not have any idea what goes on inside. But in the last six years alone, there have been 248 instances in which its engineer have caught software flaws that could have resulted in the loss of a mission, and possibly of human lives, according to Bill Jackson, the center’s acting director.
Research into software verification challenges facing NASA is another key role of the IV&V facility. One current project involves examining the software verification and validation problems that can occur on missions involving multiple spacecraft acting as one, according to the center’s 2005 annual report.
Support for education is the third main mission of the IV&V facility, according to Donna Ozburn, outreach coordinator for the center. More than 600 educators in the state last year took part in teacher workshops at the facility using NASA-developed materials , she said. The facility also has a simulator room that allows students and others to simulate shuttle landings and dockings at the space station.
The NASA IV&V center reports to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and employs 44 civil servants, including Jackson. There are also 203 contractor employees, most of them from Northrop Grumman Information Technology of McLean, Va., and L3 Communications’ Titan Group of Reston, Va.
The facility has supported projects for every NASA center with the exception of Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and is reviewing software for 25 separate missions this year alone — up from three in its first year of operation, Jackson said in an interview.
To determine what missions will receive a software audit , NASA headquarters develops rankings that take into account both how crucial a project is and what risks are involved, Jackson said. NASA IV&V reviews the list, and, based on its own judgment and budget , develops a workload plan for the year. Managers whose projects are not selected have the option of funding software review out of their own budget, Jackson said.
In 2006, NASA IV&V had a $37.6 million budget , up from $30 million in 2005. The center did not always have such a large budget of its own for verification projects. Prior to 2003, this money had to come out of the hides of individual projects, often making the center unpopular with program managers.
“People like us now,” Jackson quipped .
The space shuttle and space station programs today still account for most of the work at the IV&V center, but the mix is changing as more science missions are added, Jackson said. The Phoenix Mars Lander, New Horizons Pluto probe and Stereo solar-observing spacecraft all have been scrutinized by IV&V technicians, for example.
The word is spreading about IV&V center’s work , Jackson said. The center signed a memorandum of understanding with the Japanese Aerospace Development Agency in 2005 to share some of its techniques and insights, and has another in the works with the European Space Agency. Organizations such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Census Bureau also have consulted the center for advice on software validation , Jackson said.
Though the facility has not received monetary compensation for non-NASA work, Jackson said it has paid off in other ways.
“Our goal is to be recognized as the pre-eminent leader in the field,” Jackson said. “And the fact that all these other agencies are coming to us shows that we’re on the right track.”
When work on NASA’s planned return of astronauts to the Moon begins to take off, the IV&V facility likely will see its program mix change significantly.
“IV&V is kind of like a microcosm of what’s going on in the agency at large,” Jackson said. “We will also have the challenge of balancing our limited resources between the new vision and the existing programs.”
The center already has devoted some civil servants to the task of supervising early development efforts for Project Constellation, he said. Project Constellation is the name given to a series of NASA development efforts including the space shuttle replacement and other hardware needed for manned missions to the Moon.