What if they built it to never crash - software that is

The agency that landed men on the moon, built a space station, and sent robots to Mars is tackling another tricky high-tech challenge: Developing computer software that doesn't crash.

Ever.

NASA, Carnegie Mellon University and a dozen high-tech companies announced Monday the formation of a consortium whose primary mission is to eliminate failure in software vital to the nation. Systems to be targeted by the High Dependability Computing Consortium include those that play a crucial role in air-traffic control, the space program, banking, and healthcare - "Software that your life can depend on," says Henry McDonald, director of NASA's Ames Research Center. "The embedding of software into the whole fabric of the United States ... introduced a level of dependency that demands utterly reliable, utterly dependable systems," he says.

Research promoted by the group probably won't lead to better home computers any time soon, but it could result in safer skies, better healthcare, and successful space missions, organizers say.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is no stranger to buggy software. Last year, the $165 million Mars Polar Lander crashed on the Red Planet after a glitch caused an early shutoff of its descent engines.

Twelve information-technology companies - including IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Microsoft - will work with Carnegie Mellon and NASA to develop the consortium and its agenda. Its first planning meeting is scheduled for later this month.

The consortium will try to develop systems outside the constraints of Wall Street, says Ray Lane, a former Oracle Corp. president and a Carnegie Mellon trustee who is helping lead the group. NASA funded a Carnegie Mellon proposal to develop the consortium with a $500,000 grant. The consortium represents the first concrete step in the Pittsburgh-based university's plan to develop a presence in Silicon Valley.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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