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NASA turns to open-source problem-tracking databases

The space agency will begin using new software written using Bugzilla tools to track and analyze problems with the Space Shuttle and Space Station programs.

When the Space Shuttle Endeavour launches Friday afternoon, assuming it is not delayed, the astronauts onboard and the technicians on the ground at mission control will have at their disposal new software that could streamline the process of problem reporting and analysis.

The software, called the Problem Reporting Analysis and Corrective Action (PRACA) system, was created by the Human-Computer Interaction Group at NASA's Ames Research Center, and is designed to give a wide cross-section of people in the Space Shuttle ecosystem access to a single database package for tracking problems with the Shuttle and its associated infrastructure.

According to Alonso Vera, the lead of the Ames Human-Computer Interaction Group, the single, universally accessible PRACA package is replacing a set of more than 40 different database systems that had been used over the past 30 years by the many different parts of that Shuttle ecosystem.

And, like a related database system known as Items for Investigation (IFI) that is used for tracking International Space Station issues, the new PRACA was written using open-source Bugzilla tools that will save NASA considerable amounts of time and money.

Vera wouldn't say exactly how much the new systems cost to build, but he said they were an order of magnitude cheaper than what was being used before, closer to $100,000 than the $1 million it would have cost in the past.

More to the point, Vera explained, by using open-source Bugzilla tools, technicians will be able to make changes to either PRACA or IFI more or less on the fly, rather than having to submit any proposed changes to the publishers of proprietary software, steps that often took weeks to achieve.

The PRACA system is used, Vera said, to help anyone trying to diagnose problems with the Shuttle find reports of similar issues from the past to see how they were resolved. The IFI system, by contrast, is used by those involved with the Space Station to report new problems for later analysis.

Already, the new PRACA systems are being used in NASA's Constellation program, which will replace the Space Shuttle after 2010. But Friday's launch will be the first live test of the system, given that Constellation has yet to go into space. However, since it's only a test, the existing PRACA system will also be used.

Similarly, the Space Station program has now phased out its older IFI system and turned on the new version.

Vera said that the Space Shuttle program has yet to commit fully to the new PRACA system, though the Space Station program will do a full switchover in March 2009.