When an unanticipated situation occurs on the International Space Station (ISS), safety engineers on the ground are responsible for gathering all of the relevant information, assessing the risk and providing a course of action.
This can be a daunting task; just finding the data used to take a team of engineers several days, and, with their legacy filing system, there was no guarantee the results were comprehensive.
In this type of situation, timeliness, efficiency, and a correct and complete scope of available data are vital to ensure the safety of everyone onboard. To address these demands, Ames Research Center’s (ARC) Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Group developed the Mission Assurance System (MAS).
Originally created for NASA’s Constellation human space flight program, the MAS platform is a web-based application used for data entry and safety documentation. The use of standardized digital forms makes information easy to search and find. MAS data is accessible with just an Internet connection and browser.
“The three main benefits are data accuracy, cost effectiveness and efficiency,” explained Irene Tollinger, assistant chief, Human Systems Integration Division at ARC.
With the MAS platform, users can pull all of the relevant information within minutes instead of days. This allows engineers to spend less time searching for information and more time analyzing data and providing solutions.
“MAS is configurable,” Tollinger added. “Fields can be changed or added to fit a number of different applications and documents without additional development. It can be tailored to fit the needs of the organization and process.”
Historically data was fragmented across many different systems; for example, Shuttle had over twenty systems for Problem Reporting And Corrective Action (PRACA) documents alone. This fragmentation led to inconsistent and difficult-to-search data, and it was cited as a contributing factor for the Columbia disaster in the Columbia Accident Investigation Report.
The MAS system’s configurability, without changes to code, was developed for two key reasons. First, NASA needed systems to collect similar data across centers and projects, as well as allow flexibility to include local process variations. This addresses the data-fragmentation challenges of previous systems. Second, NASA needed processes that could evolve to fit the different stages of a program over its 20- or 30-year mission life cycle at a low cost. In the past, making changes to databases required contract modifications, months of development, and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. This lag would often cause systems to be out of sync with process needs, which led to inconsistent data collection. Now, using MAS, updates can be made in hours or days.
In addition to enabling cross-center use and low-cost process updates for Constellation and now Exploration Systems, configurability has also enabled NASA to use MAS for a broad range of data sets.
MAS is built on an open source software defect tracking application developed by the Mozilla Foundation, which allows NASA to utilize existing key infrastructure such as search, notifications, robust user permissions, workflow and more. NASA is able to modify and use this software free of charge, without having to pay for licensing fees. NASA only maintains capabilities developed in-house, which reduces maintenance costs, and contributes features relevant to the open source community back to Mozilla.
An emerging benefit of the system is its built-in integration capability that enables system-to-system communication with external applications, such as problems to related hardware parts or hazards to related drawings. The ISS Program is working to integrate a broader set of systems (including flight manifests and operational controls) to link related data to create a web of knowledge, updated in real time, that enables users to generate automated reports. These types of reports will enable ISS to quickly answer flight readiness questions such as, “What additional work do we need to complete if we add a new piece of hardware to the next flight?” These types of reports currently require multiple groups to compile this data by hand.
Deputy Manager for ISS Safety and Mission Assurance Scott Seyl described the MAS platform as “a tremendous tool.”
“Now that we have extended ISS past 2020, this is something that will give us extreme capabilities and flexibilities and ways to continue to capture critical data, and allow us to troubleshoot system issues and operational issues in a much more efficient manner,” he said. “We didn’t do this many years ago because Station’s life was until 2015, but now that we are extending the program, [MAS] is an absolute necessity.”
MAS was first deployed to ISS in 2008 for Items for Investigation (IFIs) found on-orbit. It now supports three systems for the ISS Safety and Mission Assurance Office including IFI/PRACA, Failure Modes Effects Analyses (FMEAs) and Hazard Reports. The ARC’s HCI group will deploy a fourth system for ISS Operational Controls in May 2014.
MAS has been successfully deployed to 14 NASA systems, including multiple systems for NASA’s three new Programs: Orion, Space Launch System (SLS), and Ground Systems Development Operations. The production systems have more than 160,000 records and 4,000 users.
For more information about the MAS platform, contact Irene Tollinger, assistant chief, Human Systems Integration Division at ARC.