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The Space Shuttle’s Y2K Problem

By Brian | December 11, 2006 | Share on Facebook

I think at this point, we can all agree that the Space Shuttle is a remarkable piece of technological achievement. So you can imagine my surprise when I found this in an article about tonight’s nighttime launch:

NASA officials were glad to get the shuttle off their ground since they wanted it back on Earth by the new year.

Shuttle computers are not designed to make the change from the 365th day of the old year to the first day of the new year while in flight. The space agency has figured out a solution for the New Year’s Day problem, but managers are reluctant to try it.

Right, ’cause when you build a space shuttle, you just assume that NASA will always take Christmas week off… Sheesh!

Topics: The World Wide Weird | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “The Space Shuttle’s Y2K Problem”

  1. Jeff Porten says at December 11th, 2006 at 5:31 pm :
    Keep in mind that the shuttle was prototyped and built in the late 70s and early 80s. They’ve upgraded some of the components, but last I heard most of the onboard computer systems are still circa 1982. IIRC, some of the scientific experiments they take along have their own laptops and PDAs because they’re so much more powerful at handling number crunching.

    The interesting question is something different: you might recall that the space shuttle was sold to Reagan and America as a “space taxi”, where a fleet of shuttles would launch on the order of 30 times a year and missions would be entirely routine. Clearly this was pure marketing, since any engineer with this in mind would have seen the New Year issue as making this impossible to maintain.

  2. Brian says at December 12th, 2006 at 12:25 pm :
    I know you’re right, but I don’t buy this as an excuse. Computers in 1982 knew how many days were in the year, and they knew which day came after 12/31/82. The programmers were lazy and declared this a “future requirement.”

    As for the “space taxi” marketing, I think you could make the argument that it was pretty accurate. For quite some time, shuttle flights were entirely routine. I don’t know the exact number, but dozens of them went off without any significant problems, and the news barely covered them. We are also currently “taxing” people to and from the international space station for 6 month stays. I’m not sure where the “30 times a year” figure came from, nor do I know what the record was for a single year (too lazy to Google it…), but I think on the whole, we can agree that it did pretty well for it’s day.

    Just no Christmas trips…


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