To the space station and beyond with Linux

To the space station and beyond with Linux

Summary: The International Space Station's laptops are moving from Windows to Linux, and R2, the first Linux-powered humanoid robot in space, is now under-going in-flight testing.


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. 

This isn't science-fiction. This is R2, the first humanoid robot in space, and it's powered by Linux. (Image: NASA)

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.

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Topics: Linux, Hardware, Laptops, Nasa / Space

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  • Cool

    First, Linux is conquering the earth, and then space. I guess that leaves what? Nothing?
    • The desktop

      ..but we're working on that.
      • Still?

        I have been using Linux on the desktop for years now. It all started with this little OS called Mandrake Linux (may it rest in peace) and their KDE centric view. Many would argue KDE killed them, but it was poor management and over-valuation. Then came Ubuntu, but for me, Kubuntu. I don't like to switch OSes very often but I have been eyeballing Arch and Gentoo for a much more realistic Linux experience like I had with Mandrake. It seems Canonical will never embrace that which is KDE. Everything they are trying to accomplish with Unity, and every other DE tries for; for that matter, can be accomplished with a few clicks on KDE via plugins or vanilla GUI support. Sure KDE 4.0~4.4 was a pain in the neck, but they had to rewrite the entire code-base, and even then I had Trinity (a fork of KDE 3.5.10).

        Anyhow Linux on the desktop can be done, but it will never be done with these piss poor attempts called 'GTK based desktops' and that includes Gnome. A simplified desktop is NOT what people want, contrary to popular belief. We want something that empowers us to get our daily tasks done as fast as possible. I wouldn't use a fisher price saw to cut a tree down, why the hell would I use Gnome for my day to day use? Especially when they have gimped (not to be confused with Gimp) off all the power abilities and refuse to put them back. They are trying too hard to give you an "experience" and have completely lost sight of people want to do on their computers.

        And for the 1% of all desktop market share out there that actually continue to believe this rhetoric that people want an "experience" rather than accomplish everything in a cohesive manner, you really have another thing coming. People want power, speed, stability, and THEN VERY LAST, if it offers them a delightful experience, then so be it; But if that delightful experience removes the user's ability to get anything done because its "overcomplicated", then you have really really missed the point. You should come back to Earth.
        • fine rant, but...

          Linux' unpopularity on the desktop isn't due to any failures of linux. In fact, Gnome3 is awesome. Unity is awesome. MATE is awesome. tiling WMs are awesome. And, yes, KDE is awesome.

          Gnome3 isn't gimped in any way. All the power users are there in extensions. Nautilus has been castrated, but there are 1000 other competent file managers you can easily install.

          Linux's failure on the desktop is due to 1) zero marketing budget 2) platform lockin 3) lack of games 4) linux' reputation from >5 years ago 5) people's fear of learning even a few simple CLI commands 6) people's hesitance to learn new things 7 FUD 8) basic inertia.

          The Linux UI right now is absolutely the best going; it's continued slow acceptance is not in any way due to any failings in that department.

          If it were, when most everyone agreed that Gnome2 was the bee's knees, Linux use would have exploded. It didn't.
          Sasha Shepherd
    • I'll withhold my excitement...

      ...until Robonaut, Design II (R2-D2) comes along. XD
      • Who to heck needs Windows in A.D 2013...

        ...when we have great operation system called Linux? I will never come back to Windows.
        • People who have to log in to web engines written in VBScript...

          Among others. People who have to use Adobe applications and others that don't run on Linux natively. Some of us don't have control over these things.
  • To the space station and beyond with Linux

    They originally were using Microsoft Windows in space and the ISS. Once again we have linux playing follow the leader here. Microsoft can get the bragging rights for this one for being there first.

    “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.”
    This part has to be a joke. They are going to spend more time patching, configuring, compiling the kernel, and securing the telnet port than they will anything else. I hope Mr. Chuala understands that he will be patching the ISS daily. Lets hope they are smart enough not to install apps from one of the hacked repositories either. I just couldn't imagine my life in space being dependent on linux. I would take the first shuttle back to Earth. At least if there is a problem with Microsoft Windows you can reboot and it will fix it With linux if there is a problem you are stuck. Rebooting won't fix it. You are basically hosed.

    I refuse to have my tax dollars go to this project. I will be writing my representatives to get Microsoft Windows back into the ISS and I encourage all of you to do the same.
    • All I can say is ....

      good luck with that.

      In case you missed it, Linux is free, so your government is actually saving you money; no more license fees to pay to MS.

      Isn't that great?
      • Do you work for the government?

        One: who knows how much it costs the government to customize Linux for the space station verses just buying a computer OS as is. You just made a guess, that's all.

        Two: Since when did the government ever do anything the cost conscious, affordable way?
        NoMore MicrosoftEver
        • an estimate

          "who knows how much it costs the government to customize Linux for the space station verses just buying a computer OS as is. "
          First, they need a customized OS, does MS offer one? How much more that be? So who do you wanna ask for an estimate? Of course, Microsoft, who else would be as unbiased as they always are, or lets just get them to pay for an "independent" study?
      • Luck is not needed

        Just a good compelling case which is rather easy to make when linux is involved. My government is not saving money when they have to hire programmers to fix all the bugs then test it. If they stuck with Microsoft that would be part of the package and Microsoft would be responsible for fixing the code at no cost to the government.
        • cost of bugs

          "If they stuck with Microsoft that would be part of the package and Microsoft would be responsible for fixing the code at no cost"
          O ya, oh ya, if something bad happens MS will either reimburse you authentic copy of Windows or just say "sorry". Microsoft's "sorry" is worth of millions... ?
          BTW, MS develops and supports a tiny fraction of all the software available from a secure repository of typical distro.
        • The funniest thing I've read all day

          "If they stuck with Microsoft that would be part of the package and Microsoft would be responsible for fixing the code at no cost to the government."

          MS will have that custom Windows kernel fixed next patch Tuesday, and your reality check is in the mail.

          That's the beauty of Linux. It's open source and it can be customized. Windows is proprietary, and I doubt that there are teams of software developers at MS that understand the intricate demands of space flight, let alone a department that spits out custom distros for anyone.
          Oracle Sean
          • You can't explain things to the ignorant

            It is obvious from his/her feeble attempt to explain without any actual knowledge on the subject... They aren't going to comprehend why open source is better than proprietary...

            Forget the millions of open source developers looking and helping to write good clean code rather than closing off the code and working around the bugs...
      • D.T.Long: "Linux is free, so your government is actually saving you money"

        Linux may be free, but support, should the government choose to have it, is not free. Support is the basis of Red Hat's status as a $1 billion U.S. company. It's how SuSE, Oracle and Canonical generate their revenue from Linux as well.

        For those organizations that opt out of Linux support, you will find that support is provided internally by their own staff. Salary and benefits for staff is not free either.

        The primary advantage to Linux is that it is free and open-source software and, therefore, is highly customizable.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
        • are you asserting that

          Windows doesn't need internal support? I.e., people that pretty much do what Linux admins would otherwise do? Or that the salary of the Windows admins is much lower than that of the Linux admins. Right, the difference is
          1) possibility to customize
          2) much easier to find competent specialists (since even MS is having usually so hard time )
          3) and more
          • Linux training from The Linux Foundation isn't free either

            From the article:
            "To help astronauts and IT specialists get up to speed, NASA is relying on The Linux Foundation for training."

            Here's the link (also provided in the article):


            P.S. Funny, I didn't mention Windows in my post. :)
            Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Loverock-Davidson....please make sure you consult with Mike Cox first

      as his logic is far more plausable than yours will ever be..................
      Over and Out
    • Oh my, oh my!

      This is among the best posts on these forums...