To solve the problem, NASA turned to Qualtech Systems, a Wethersfield, Conn., maker of diagnostic software. Its Web-based toolset lets engineers monitor the space station's systems, diagnose specific faults, and even walk astronauts through repairs. "You can get field diagnostics from anywhere in the world," says Kevin Cavanaugh, Qualtech chief operating officer. "All you have to do is run your browser."
Qualtech's Remote Diagnostics Server system works by continually processing the wealth of telemetry beamed down from the space station and feeding it into a digital model of the station. The software keeps an eye out for any data that looks anomalous and can flag problem areas automatically.
When an engineer examines a faulty system, the software links to relevant Web pages, images, and movie files to help nail down the exact defect. "Let's say a diagnosis whittles the problem down," Cavanaugh says. "What you can do then is launch an interaction that takes you through a procedure to figure out if it's a pump or a valve, and then shows you how to fix it." Cavanaugh says the system should be running 95% of the space station's systems by 2005.
Beyond that, he foresees other uses, including airlines monitoring their fleets, or even as a diagnostic tool for rural or Third World doctors. "If you think about it, when we model a system, we're modeling all the components, all the interactions between components, and all the possible failures," he says. "The human body has components and failures, too."