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The International Space Station Is Abandoning Windows for Linux

The ISS astronauts have more important things to worry about than the blue screen of death.

by Adam Clark Estes
May 10 2013, 5:25pm
Image via atozed

Breaking space computer news alert: After years of weak security and too many blue screens of death, the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are switching operating systems. So long Windows XP. Hello Linux.

In related news, the ISS was running on Windows XP for years! It's unclear exactly why this seems extraordinary. I guess the main thing is that NASA and the space industry in general basically invented computers and pioneered plenty of early software efforts. Why on Earth did they entrust Microsoft with the computers on board the space station for so long? 

Again, it's super unclear. The ISS crew wasn't shy about explaining its reasons for switching. There are "dozens of laptops" on the space station, some of which are already running various versions of Linux, like RedHat and Scientific Linux. In recent years, every single one of those laptops that runs Windows has gotten a virus at one point or another.

The United Space Alliance, the organization that handles computers on board the ISS, explained in a statement, "We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable." So we must be left to assume that Windows is not the "stable and reliable" choice.

And who could forget that time the thousands of times that hackers have attacked NASA's computer systems? Of course, NASA and the ISS are not synonymous, and who knows what kind of operating system the fellows in Houston are running. However, the sheer volume of attacks shows how hungry hackers are to get into the computers we send to the cosmos. Who knows why. Bragging rights, probably. Can you imagine what would happen if someone uploaded a crippling virus to the space stations mainframe?

That sounds both annoying and far fetched. Like everybody else, NASA and the United Space Alliance are dealing with a steady stream of cybersecurity challenges. The computers that actually operate vital components of a craft like the International Space Station are separate from the laptops that have been limping by on Windows XP. Nevertheless, in the age of hackers and malware, it just doesn't make sense for any of the computers in space to use an off-the-shelf operating system.

The United Space Alliance's Keith Chevula says that beyond something more stable, they wanted an OS that offer "in-house control," he said. "So if we needed to patch, adjust or adapt, we could."

Plus, the ISS astronauts have more important things to worry about than how many times they have to press control + alt + delete before they can get rid of that blue screen of death.

Just for the heck of it, here are 19 minutes of delicious video about NASA's computer program in the 1960s. Don't forget your pocket protector!

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