The Best Software On Any Planet


In 1995, after finishing up on a particularly challenging project, my boss came to me with a new project.  He asked, “Have you ever heard of Jet Propulsion Laboratory?   Would you like to work with them?”  Without hesitation, I jumped at the offer to sign on.

I grew up not too far from JPL, and as a child I was a big fan of the space industry, as well as the TV show Star Trek.  I not only knew that JPL was part of NASA, but also that JPL made space probes.

This was my first real space project.  At the time, I was the most junior member of the team.  Our team was comprised of several engineers at JPL, several at Loral Federal Space Systems, and a handful of folks at Wind River.  The mission was Mars Pathfinder, the first attempt from NASA to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software and a COTS computer to put a robot on another planet.  I was honored to join the team.

The plan was to build a robot that would land on the surface of Mars, and perform some science experiments.  A remote-control rover was added to the payload.  The robot was to land on Mars and operate in-situ for a month.   Our task was to port the VxWorks operating system to this processor, new to us, for the first time.  The processor was based on the IBM RS6000.

This task was a top-to-bottom port of the operating system to the CPU.  This required an in-depth understanding of how the CPU operated on all levels, and an understanding of the division between the CPU, Board Support, and the OS itself.  It even required understanding how various compiler tools handled the ABI, and later the EABI, for the architecture.  I had never worked on a complete architecture port before this.

This was – to that point in time – the most demanding job I had ever done.  And it was the most fun, as well as the most cooperative team I’d worked with.  I learned an incredible amount, enough to tie-together everything I’d learned about computing in university, and more.

We worked some incredibly long hours, and made our milestones and deliveries.  In December of 1996, we were invited to the product launch proceedings at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  As special guests, we had passes to park near the launch area and sit in grandstands just 5 miles away from the pad. It was an awe-inspiring sight. I felt like a real VIP.

In July 1997, I attended the landing ceremonies for family and friends of Pathfinder at JPL in Pasadena.  When the first image came back from Mars, the entire assembly erupted in fantastic celebration – we had landed on Mars!

Happy anniversary Wind River!