This week I began my work at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC). My job is to write software regression test protocols for the guidance, navigation, and control software on a lander prototype. We normally refer to the software as the GN&C package. It basically tells the flight computer and flight computer software (FCS) what to do as far as maneuvering the vehicle.
The vehicle I'm working on is called Morpheus and will with any luck be the next machine we place on the moon. It may take some instrument up after a few more years, but only time and funding will tell. Below is a picture of the lander with me for scale.
I encourage you to also follow the Morpheus blog from NASA (here). Videos of tests will be posted there, but I'll also repost. The first few tests the lander was tied down to the ground. Then it was hung from a tether and allowed to ascend and land on its own. Some of the tests worked well, but others had problems as is in the video below. Most of those issues have been solved and we are now just working on some control lag problems.
More tests were planned very soon, but the rocket started a fire in the test field and we can not light the engine again until the investigate has cleared up, hopefully by early July. Until we do more field tests I'm working in the NSTL (Navigation Systems Testing Laboratory) trying to do regression analysis. In general fixing a bug in software can break other features. When the software is flying a very expensive lander with around half a ton of explosive rocket fuel that is a very bad thing. I'm using spacecraft simulation code to prove that certain changes don't cause issues with the flight and trying to develop software modification protocols that allow rapid updates.
The icing on the cake was really my first day when I happened to hear that Gene Kranz (the flight controller for many years, made famous in the movie 'Apollo 13') was speaking. I attended his lecture and it was amazing. He really has the passion that I love seeing in people. Mr. Kranz was excited for what our generation can do, but concerned that we may currently lack the leadership to do it. I agree completely with his statement and all of us in the room are striving to learn those vital skills that he talked about. The Apollo missions would have never left the ground without leadership, teamwork, and persistance. While we may have many times the computer power of the 1960's I'm worried we have fewer of these important personal qualities.