Unlike my recent spoof story about a Linux-powered Iron Man suit that you could build at home, this story isn't science fiction. NASA really has decided to drop Windows from the laptops on the International Space Station (ISS) in favor of Linux, and the first humanoid robot in space, R2, really is powered by Linux.
Keith Chuvala, a United Space Alliance contractor, manager of the Space Operations Computing (SpOC) for NASA, and leader of the ISS's Laptops and Network Integration Teams, recently explained that NASA had decided to move to Linux for the ISS's PCs. "We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable — one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust, or adapt, we could."
Specifically, the ISS astronauts will be using computers running Debian 6. Earlier, some of the on-board computers had been using Scientific Linux, a Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) clone. While not the newest version of Debian, Debian 7 has just been released, Debian is nothing if not well-tested and reliable.
While Linux has been used on the ISS ever since its launch (PDF link) and for NASA ground operations almost since the day Linus Torvalds created it, it hasn't seen that much use on PCs in space. "Things really clicked," said Chuvala in an interview, "after we came to understand how Linux views the world, the interconnectedness of how one thing affects another. You need that worldview. I have quite a bit of Linux experience, but to see others who were really getting it, that was exciting."
In addition to appearing on in-flight laptops, Linux is also running Robonaut (R2), the first humanoid robot in space. Currently on the station and experimental mode, R2 is meant to carry out tasks too dangerous or tedious for astronauts.
To help astronauts and IT specialists get up to speed, NASA is relying on The Linux Foundation for training. As Chuvala explained, "NASA is as heterogeneous as it gets".
"They had a heavy Debian Linux deployment, but also various versions of RHEL/Centos. Because our training is flexible to a variety of distributions, we're able to address all those different environments in a single training session. No other training organization can provide that."
And, I might add, no other operating system is as flexible as Linux. From supercomputers to robots to desktops, NASA is finding that Linux is the answer.