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SMC-IT day one: general thoughts

Here are the pictures I took today.

This is the first conference I've been to for which my employer has paid my way; not entirely unrelatedly, it's also the first one where the implicit dress code isn't just t-shirt-and-jeans. Our name badges came with clips but no lanyards, reflecting a dress code more aligned with buttoned-down shirts with collars and breast pockets.

Apparently SMC-IT can be pronounced “smeck it” or “smack it.”

Today's keynote speaker was Dr. Marcia McNutt from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, who gave a fascinating comparison between ocean exploration and space exploration. Naturally, there are some common issues between them like autonomy, wherein both fields could benefit from collaboration. What were interesting to me were the problems ocean research vehicle designers have to worry about that space vehicle designers never need consider, primarily fouling and the infeasibility of electromagnetic spectrum communication.

I stuck to the Deep-Space Communications track today, and I expect I'll mostly do the same tomorrow. Still, it's difficult to choose between sessions.

General directions in space networking

The speakers generally describe a vision of a medium-range future in which many of the scientific spacecraft orbiting the Earth, orbiting other planets, and elsewhere in the solar system are part of an interplanetary network based on protocols like TCP and IP. Of course, layered on those protocols must be others that deal with the delays and disruptions of the space environment. My impression from today's round of talks is that there's plenty of work going on in developing standards and prototypes for these kinds of networks. In the idealized future, spacecraft would act as flexible network nodes; publish/subscribe models of communication would govern data transfers; object-oriented interfaces would abound. In contrast to the way space communication typically works today (deterministic, rigid protocols; manually routed point-to-point communication), this future looks satisfyingly modern.

Between this vision of the future and its adoption by the higher-up mission planners and managers lies a gulf, though, and I'm hardly the first to point it out. Where I work, at least, space missions are very expensive and thus very risk-averse. Those who make the broad engineering decisions are quite fond of determinism and explicit control mechanisms. I haven't heard much that addresses the cultural gap that exists between the enthusiastic innovators here and the cautious managers who decide what the future of space communications really looks like.

My presentation will be on Thursday, the final day of this conference, on The Evolution of a Test Process for Spacecraft Software, based on a paper written by three of my co-workers. (Although it has worked in my favor in this case, I can't (yet?) understand their aversion to business travel and conferences.) I'm also doing what I can to act as a proxy for Andrew Turner, who couldn't make it to present his poster on The Development and Use of Open Source Spacecraft Simulation and Control Software for Education and Research.

I've found the speakers' heavy reliance on phrases of the form “the $foo guys,” where $foo is some sort of technical field, mildly irritating. In my personal usage, “guys” is gender neutral only as a plural second-person noun. It's unclear to me whether the speakers' usage is meant to be gender neutral, and if not, what they mean by it.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 18th, 2006 04:06 pm (UTC)
Wow! This conference that you're attending looks wicked cool.

Although I'm sad that you're not going to be attending OLS, I am also insanely jealous. :P
Jul. 18th, 2006 04:09 pm (UTC)
I see you're not quite ready to join alt.space, but we're getting there.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )