NASA’s Long-Delayed Return To Human Spaceflight

With the launch of the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, the United States has achieved something it hasn’t done in nearly a decade: put a human into low Earth orbit with a domestic booster and vehicle. It was a lapse in capability that stretched on far longer than anyone inside or outside of NASA could have imagined. Through a series of delays and program cancellations, the same agency that put boot prints on the Moon and built the iconic Space Shuttle had been forced to rely on Russia to carry its astronauts into space since 2011.

NASA would still be waiting to launch its own astronauts had they relied on America’s traditional aerospace giants to get the job done. The inaugural flight of the Boeing CST-100 “Starliner” to the International Space Station in December was an embarrassing failure that came perilously close to losing the unmanned capsule. A later investigation found that sloppy software development and inconsistent testing had caused at least two major failures during the mission, which ultimately had to be cut short as the vehicle couldn’t even reach the altitude of the ISS, to say nothing of making a docking attempt. NASA and Boeing have since agreed to attempt another test of the CST-100 sometime before the end of the year, though a delay into 2021 seems almost inevitable due to the global pandemic.

But America’s slow return to human spaceflight can’t be blamed on the CST-100, or even Boeing, for that matter. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has been hindered by politics and indecisiveness. With a constantly evolving mandate from the White House, the agency’s human spaceflight program has struggled to make significant progress towards any one goal.

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If This Is Your Inspiration From Space, You’re Doing It Wrong

So after a false start due to bad weather, the first crewed launch of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule with two astronauts on board has gone ahead. After playing catch-up with the ISS for around 27 hours they’re now safely aboard. At times it seems that space launches have become everyday occurrences, but they are still heroes who have risked their lives in the furtherment of mankind’s exploration of space. Their achievement, and that of all the scientists, engineers, and other staff who stand behind them, is immense.

I watched the drama unfold via the live video feed. Having heaved a huge sigh of relief once they were safely in orbit, the feed cut to the studio, and then moved on to interview the NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. He was naturally elated at a successful launch, and enthused about the agency’s achievement. You can watch the full interview embedded below, but what caught my attention was his parting sentence:

And if this can inspire a young child to become the next Elon Musk, or the next Jeff Bezos, or the next Sir Richard Branson, then that’s what this is all about

I was slightly shocked and saddened to hear this from the NASA administrator, because to my mind the careers of Musk, Bezos, or Branson should not be the ones first brought to mind by a space launch. This isn’t a comment on those three in themselves; although they have many critics it is undeniable that they have each through their respective space companies brought much to the world of space flight. Instead it’s a comment on what a NASA administrator should be trying to inspire in kids.

Ask yourself how many billionaire masters-of-the-universe it takes for a successful space race compared to the number of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, technicians, physicists, et al. From the anecdote of the NASA administrator it takes about three, but if he is to make good on his goal of returning to the Moon in 2024 and then eventually taking humanity to Mars it will take a generation packed full of those other roles. To understand that we’ll have to take a trip back to the Apollo era, and how that generation of kids were inspired by the spacecraft on their screens.

Inspiration from probably the coolest room in the world at the time, the Apollo mission control in Houston.
Inspiration from probably the coolest room in the world at the time, the Apollo mission control in Houston. NASA on The Commons / No restrictions

Fifty years ago, we were very much on the brink of becoming a spacefaring planet. American astronauts were taking their first steps on the Moon, and Soviet cosmonauts were occupying real space stations that would soon be capable of housing them for months at a time. Planetary probes were returning colour TV pictures from other worlds, and it was certain that in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo programme we’d be sending astronauts and probably cosmonauts too further afield. A Mars base in the 1980s perhaps, and following our fictional Star Trek heroes further afield thereafter.

We now know it didn’t quite work out that way, but a whole generation of tech-inclined kids grew up wanting nothing more than to be involved in space flight. The vast majority of us never made it, but with that inspiration we took our soldering irons and 8-bit home computers and ran with them. Those NASA folks were the coolest of role-models, and no doubt their Soviet equivalents were too for kids on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

With the best will in the world, the chances of any kid becoming the next Jeff Bezos is about as high as that of their becoming the next Neil Armstrong. Compared to the number of kids in the world, the number of billionaires and the number of astronauts both pale into statistical insignificance. But the chances of a kid becoming an engineer or a scientist is much higher, and in those careers their chances of having some of their work be involved with the space effort becomes not entirely unlikely.

I understand what the NASA administrator was trying to say, but can’t shake the feeling that if those are the people he rolls out to inspire kids watching a space launch, he’s missed an opportunity. Those are the names we all recognize, but shouldn’t we also elevate the people making the scientific breakthroughs so their names are equally recognized? Like Margaret Hamilton, Gene Kranz, and Sergei Korolev and many others before them, we should be making names like Tom Mueller and Margarita Marinova prominent examples of where a career in the sciences can take you. But to be honest, the real problem is we just don’t hear much about all the people doing this fascinating engineering and that’s a sad state of affairs.

Looks like it’s time for Hackaday to pursue a biography series based on the many great minds who are the ones delivering on the promise and vision of today’s (and tomorrow’s) space race. Get us started by talking about your favorite behind the scenes science folks in the comments below.

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This Week In Security: Leaking Partial Bits, Apple News, And Overzealous Contact Tracing

Researchers at the NCCGroup have been working on a 5-part explanation of a Windows kernel vulnerability, targeting the Kernel Transaction Manager (KTM). The vulnerability, CVE-2018-8611, is a local privilege escalation bug. There doesn’t seem to be a way to exploit this remotely, but it is an interesting bug, and NCCGroup’s work on it is outstanding.

They start with a bit of background on what the KTM is, and why one might want to use it. Next is a handy guide to reverse engineering Microsoft patches. From there, they describe the race condition and how to actually exploit it. They cover a wide swath in the series, so go check it out.

Left4Dead 2

Just a reminder that bugs show up where you least expect them, [Hunter Stanton] shares his story of finding a code execution bug in the popular Valve game, Left4Dead 2. Since the game’s code isn’t available to look at, he decided to go the route of fuzzing. The specific approach he took was to fuzz the navigation mesh data, part of the data contained in each game map. Letting the Basic Fuzzing Framework (BFF) run for three days turned up a few possible crashes, and the most promising turned out to have code execution potential. [Hunter] submitted the find through Valve’s HackerOne bug bounty program, and landed a cool $10k bounty for his trouble.

While it isn’t directly an RCE, [Hunter] does point out that malicious mesh data could be distributed with downloadable maps on the Steam workshop. Alternatively, it should be possible to set up a fake game server that distributes the trapped map. Continue reading “This Week In Security: Leaking Partial Bits, Apple News, And Overzealous Contact Tracing”

Raspberry Pi 4 Gets Its 8 Gigs

What began as a rumor becomes reality. This morning [Eben Upton] announced that the newest flavor of the Raspberry Pi 4 comes with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a sticker price of $75, roughly twice that of the base model which is now pegged at 2 GB of ram.

Originally released on June 23rd of last year, the Pi 4 came with three different options for 1, 2, or 4 GB of memory. But just a few days later, Hackaday reported on an Easter egg in the user guide that referenced an 8 GB option.

So why didn’t this version get released in 2019? That’s the crazy thing about this story. In the announcement [Eben] mentions that the Pi’s design is capable of addressing up to 16 GB of LPDDR4 SDRAM (we say bring it, but that’s a discussion for a different day). It took a year to get here because there wasn’t a source available for this 8 gig version until Micron began manufacturing the chip earlier this year.

Also addressed in this announcement is a looming changeover that was bound to happen eventually: the move from 32-bit to 64-bit operating systems on the Pi. While a 32-bit image can access all of this larger memory across multiple process, it can’t devote more than 3 GB to a single Linux process because of address space limitations. Simply put, you need more bits to access the higher addresses. Moving to a 64-bit system accomplishes that, something you can do by running unofficial builds on the Pi, but the official build didn’t support it until today’s announcement of a 64-bit beta image.

This is inevitable, not purely because of this memory limitation, but because we’ve seen examples where the juggernaut of Linux development has its own eye on a 64-bit future. Official images for Raspberry Pi have always been 32-bits, and remain so for now, but the wind is beginning to blow for this and future hardware offerings that are bumping up against limitations. Along with the news of this impending architecture switch over, the official operating system has also gotten a name change: Raspbian will henceforth be known as Raspberry Pi OS.

When [Jenny List] first reported on the 8 GB rumors last June, she speculated that today’s announcement would happen on February 29th of this year. Why the leap day? It happened to be the 8th birthday of Raspberry Pi and synced up nicely with an 8 GB surprise. Today’s announcement drops the morsel of trivia that the foundation was indeed planning on that date, but missed it by three months due to supply chain disruption associated with the coronavirus pandemic that prevented them from sourcing all the parts necessary for the new power supply design included in this revision.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this move. Do you need 8 GB on your Pi, and does the 3 GB limitation of a 32-bit kernel matter to you? Let us know in the comments below.

Coronavirus Testing: CRISPR Technology Set To Streamline Viral Testing

If we could run back 2020 to its beginning and get a do-over, chances are pretty good that we’d do a lot of things differently. There’s a ton of blame to go around on COVID-19, but it’s safe to say that one of the biggest failures of this whole episode has been the lack of cheap, quick, accurate testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the current pandemic. It’s not for lack of information; after all, Chinese scientists published the sequence of the viral genome very early in the pandemic, and researchers the world over did the same for all the information they gleaned from the virus as it rampaged around the planet.

But leveraging that information into usable diagnostics has been anything but a smooth process. Initially, the only method of detecting the virus was with reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests, a fussy process that requires trained technicians and a well-equipped lab, takes days to weeks to return results, and can only tell if the patient has a current infection. Antibody testing has the potential for a quick and easy, no-lab-required test, but can only be used to see if a patient has had an infection at some time in the past.

What’s needed as the COVID-19 crisis continues is a test with the specificity and sensitivity of PCR combined with the rapidity and simplicity of an antibody test. That’s where a new assay, based on the latest in molecular biology methods and dubbed “STOPCovid” comes in, and it could play a major role in diagnostics now and in the future.

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DMCA Takedown Issued Over Casio Code That Wasn’t

Earlier this month, we posted coverage of an ingenious calculator hack that took a Casio calculator and put an ESP8266 module and an OLED display in the space occupied by its solar cell. Controlled by a pair of unobtrusive Hall effect devices, the calculator could have been used as an ingenious cheating device but was to us the epitome of a well-executed hack. We may have liked it but it seems the folks at Casio didn’t, because they’ve issued a DMCA takedown notice for the project’s GitHub repository.

Editor’s Update: [Tom Fleet] reports that GitHub has completed the DMCA review and found the code repo does not infringe on Casio’s IP. However, it appears the copyright claim on the YouTube video has not been resolved and that video remains unavailable. However, that video is still available on the Internet Archive.

This is a picture of Barbra Streisand, who might almost be the patron saint of unintended consequences. Unknown author / Public domain
This is a picture of Barbra Streisand, who might almost be the patron saint of unintended consequences. Unknown author / Public domain.

We’re not lawyers, but if you’d care to visit our original coverage and watch the video in full, you’ll see that the ESP does not in any way tap into the calculator’s functions. The epoxy blob over the Casio processor is intact and no wires connect to the calculator mainboard, so it is difficult to imagine how any Casio code could have found its way into a repository full of ESP8266 code for the Arduino IDE. A quick search for “Hack-Casio-Calculator” on GitHub, at the time of publishing, turned up the relevant code despite Casio’s takedown, and we can’t see what they’re on about. Maybe you can?

Over the years there have been many attempts to use the DMCA on projects in our community. Some have been legitimate, others have been attempts to suppress exposure of woeful security, and still more have been laughably absurd. This one seems to us to edge into the final category, because it is difficult to see how the project described could contain any Casio code at all. It would be entirely legitimate to  issue a DMCA takedown had the epoxy blob been removed and Casio’s code been retrieved from the calculator chip (and we’d certainly cover that story!), but as far as we can see taking a scalpel to a calculator’s case and stuffing a module behind the solar panel window does not come close.

It’s evident that Casio do not like the idea of one of their calculators being turned into a cheating device, and we understand why that might be the case. But to take the DMCA route has served only to bring more publicity to the affair, and those of us with long memories know that this can only lead to one conclusion.

Thanks [Tom] and others for the tip.

Microsoft Releases The Source Code You Wanted Almost 30 Years Ago

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, if you had a personal computer there was a fair chance it either booted into some version of Microsoft Basic or you could load and run Basic. There were other versions, of course, especially for very small computers, but the gold standard for home computer Basic was Microsoft’s version, known then as GW-Basic. Now you can get the once-coveted Microsoft Basic source code for the 8086/8088 directly from Microsoft in the state you would have found it in 1983. They put up a read only GW-BASIC repository, presumably to stop a flood of feature requests for GPU acceleration.

You might wonder why they would do this? It is certainly educational, especially if you are interested in assembly language. For historical reasons, you might want to get a copy you could modify, too, for your latest retrocomputer project.

There are a few tidbits of interest. Some of the source is marked that it was translated. Apparently, Microsoft had a master implementation for some processor — real or imagined — and could translate from that code to 8088, Z-80, 6502, or any other processor they wanted to target.

From what we understand, GW-Basic was identical to IBM’s BASICA, but didn’t require certain IBM PC ROMs to operate. Of course, BASICA, itself, came from MBASIC, Microsoft’s CP/M language that originated with Altair Basic. A long lineage that influenced personal computers for many years. On a side note, there’s debate on what the GW stands for. Gee-Whiz is a popular vote, but it could stand for ‘Gates, William’, Greg Whitten (an early Microsoft employee), or Gates-Whitten. The source code doesn’t appear to answer that question.

We did enjoy the 1975 copyright message, though:

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ON THE PDP-10 FROM
FEBRUARY 9 TO APRIL 9 1975

BILL GATES WROTE A LOT OF STUFF.
PAUL ALLEN WROTE A LOT OF OTHER STUFF AND FAST CODE.
MONTE DAVIDOFF WROTE THE MATH PACKAGE (F4I.MAC).

It wasn’t long ago that Microsoft released some old versions of MSDOS. If you have the urge to write some Basic, you might pass on GW-Basic and try QB64, instead.

GW-Basic Disk and Manual photo by [Palatinatian] CC-SA-4.0.