New Computer Operating System Rides Space Shuttle

April 1st, 1997

A radically different new computer operating system is controlling an experiment on a Space Shuttle mission in late March. The experiment tests hydroponics, a way of growing plants without soil that could eventually provide oxygen and food to astronauts. The computer controlling the experiment runs Debian GNU/Linux, an operating system built by a group of 200 volunteer computer programmers who tele-collaborated over the Internet and never met each other. The system has many earthly uses — it can replace conventional operating systems such as Microsoft's Windows 95 on personal computers. In a departure from conventional operating system practice, the volunteer group is giving the system and all of its source code away for free. Details are available on the group's web site: .

Linux is the modern successor to the Unix operating system developed by Bell Labs during the 1970's, said Bruce Perens, leader of the Debian project. A Finnish college student, Linus Torvalds, started Linux in the early 1990's, and was joined by others on the Internet who helped develop the system. We united Linux with free software contributed by other volunteers to make a complete system of 800 software packages. The result communicates on the Internet and includes, for free, many normally-expensive programs such as web servers, computer languages like Java, C, and C++, and many other programs.

The space shuttle experiment will fly on mission STS-83 in late March and early April. Sebastian Kuzminsky is an engineer working on the computer that controls the experiment, which is operated by Biosciences Corporation. Kuzminsky said The experiment studies the growth of plants in microgravity. It uses a miniature '486 PC-compatible computer, the Ampro CoreModule 4DXi. Debian GNU/Linux is loaded on this system in place of DOS or Windows. The fragility and power drain of disk drives ruled them out for this experiment, and a solid-state disk replacement from the SanDisk company is used in their place. The entire system uses only 10 watts, as much electricity as a night-light. The computer controls water and light for the growing plants, and sends telemetry and video of the plants to the ground, said Kuzminsky.

Educators have also gravitated to the Debian GNU/Linux system. David Teague, a computer prof at Western Carolina University, says most of the laboratories in our CS department run Debian. We use it to teach programming, operating systems, system administration, and web page design. Schools from the primary grades to college use the system to provide inexpensive Internet access to their students.

Most of us are computer professionals, but we produced Debian GNU/Linux as a hobby project, said Perens, who works as a graphics programmer for Pixar, the company that made Toy Story. It started out three years ago as a loose collaboration of 60 people who had communicated on the Internet but had never met each other. We were dissatisfied with the operating systems available to us, which had not kept pace with the development of our computer hardware. We felt that the 'net had become so big that we could bring a group of volunteer programmers together on it to produce things that had only been made by huge companies up to now. We hoped that lots of people would put the system we created to serious use, but we couldn't advertise it except by making a web page and talking about it on the Internet. It didn't take long for us to pick up thousands of users, and for the volunteer staff to swell to 200 programmers from all over the world. People were taking Microsoft off of their systems to install Debian. Today the system has spawned its own non-profit organization, Software in the Public Interest, to support further development. The members come from every continent in the world.

We're still interested in picking up more volunteers, said Perens, and we always welcome new users. People interested in the system can learn about Debian GNU/Linux on the group's web site The web site provides free downloads of the entire system, and instructions on installing it.