I’m a little late in my reporting, but this year, in May, the International Space Station (ISS) dumped the last of its laptop installations of the Windows XP operating system to go all Linux.
They are rocket scientists. Of course they "get" Linux
The ISS runs a large laptop network called "opsLAN", which is critical for day-to-day operations. Astronauts run the station through their laptops: controlling systems, performing inventory, accessing the still and video cameras, and even figuring out their location.
They also do programming, and they need to be able to do as much of their own system maintenance and repair as possible because physical tech support is some 400 kilometres away on Earth. The ISS will also soon play host to the Linux-driven Robonaut 2 (R2) humanoid robot.
For all those reasons, Keith Chuvala made the decision to switch to Linux. Chuvala works for the United Space Alliance, a NASA contractor deeply involved in ISS operations. Chuvala is manager of Space Operations Computing (SpOC) for NASA and heads the ISS laptops and network integration teams, responsible for writing, installing, and maintaining software on the ISS network.
We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable – one that would give us in-house control. So if we needed to patch, adjust or adapt, we could.
Some of the space station’s laptops were already running Scientific Linux, a Red Hat Enterprise Linux, but Chuvala decided to standardize all laptops on Debian Linux, always staying one version back for stability, so that meant starting with version 6, known as "Squeeze".
The Linux Foundation’s news release doesn’t brag about the superior security of Linux over Windows, and certainly over XP, but it had to be one of the considerations that went into making the switch.
Computer virus goes where no virus has gone before
Lots of sci-fi films have featured a spaceship crew falling victim to a space-borne virus; back in 2008, a virus really did get aboard the International Space Station. It was just a Windows computer virus, but next time, who knows?
Earlier this year, Eugene Kaspersky, of Kaspersky Labs antivirus fame, revealed at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australia, that back in 2008 Russian cosmonauts unwittingly brought malware aboard the ISS, which infected at least two of the station’s networked laptops.
The then–Windows XP–based laptops on the ISS were infected with a password-stealing virus called Gammima.AG, or Trojan-GameThief.Win32.Magania, after a cosmonaut brought a compromised laptop aboard and spread the malware via flash drive.
NASA officials described the computer infection as more of a mysterious nuisance than a real problem.
"It’s not a frequent occurrence, but this isn’t the first time," a NASA spokesperson said at the time.