The Risks Digest

The RISKS Digest

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

Volume 1 Issue 43

Wednesday, 29 Jan 1986

Contents

oReliability of Shuttle Destruct System (Martin J. Moore)
LONG MESSAGE
o Challenger lost (and note on self-destruct mechanism)
Earle S. Kyle jr.
o Challenger ICING !!!
Werner Uhrig
o Big Brother, again
Col. G. L. Sicherman

Reliability of Shuttle Destruct System [LONG]

"MARTIN J. MOORE" <mooremj@eglin-vax>
28 Jan 86 14:06:00 CDT
Copyright © 1986 Martin J. Moore          [COMMENT: READERS -- PLEASE OBSERVE
                                             THE RESTRICTIONS ON THIS MESSAGE
                                             AT THE END OF THE MESSAGE.  PGN]

> From: Peter G. Neumann <Neumann@SRI-CSL.ARPA>
> For those of you who haven't heard, the Challenger blew up this morning...
> One unvoiced concern from the RISKS point of view is the presence on each
> shuttle of a semi-automatic self-destruct mechanism.  Hopefully that
> mechanism cannot be accidentally triggered.  [COMMENT: I did not intend
                                              to imply that as the cause --
                                              only to raise concern about the
                                              safety of such mechanisms.  PGN]

Peter, I assume that you are talking about the Range Safety Command Destruct
System, which is used to destroy errant missiles launched from Cape Canaveral. 
From 1980 to 1983 I was the lead programmer/analyst on the ground portions of
that system, and I am the primary author of the software which translates the
closing of destruct switches into the RF destruct signals sent to the vehicle.
I think I can address the question of whether the system can be accidentally
triggered; worrying about that gave me nightmares off and on for months
while I was on the project.  I'd like to tell you a little about the system
and why I think the answer is No.  Note that my information is now three years
old, and some details may have changed; there may also be minor errors in 
detail due to lapses in my memory, which isn't as good as my computer's!

On board the vehicle, there are five destruct receivers: one on the external 
tank (ET) and two on each of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs).  There is no
receiver or destruct ordnance on the Orbiter; it is effectively just an 
airplane.  The casing of each SRB is mined with HMX, a high explosive; the ET 
contains a small pyrotechnic device which causes its load of liquid hydrogen 
and liquid oxygen to combine and combust.  The receivers and explosives are
connected such that the receipt of four proper ARM sequences followed by 
a proper FIRE sequence by any of the receivers will explode the ordnance.

The ARM sequence and FIRE sequence must come from the ground; they cannot be
generated aboard the vehicle.  These sequences are transmitted on a frequency 
which is reserved, at all times, for this purpose and this purpose alone.
There are several transmitters around the Eastern Test Range which can be used
to transmit the codes.  These transmitters have a power of 10 kw (continuous 
wave).  The ARM and FIRE sequences consist of thirteen tone pairs (different
for each command and changed for each launch).  There are eight possible 
tones, resulting in 28 possible tone pairs; thus, there are (28^13) or
slightly over 6.5E18 correct sequences.

The Range Safety Officer has two switches labeled "ARM" and "DESTRUCT".
When he throws a switch, it generates an interrupt in the central processor
(there are actually two central processors running and receiving all inputs,
but only one is on-line at any time; in case of software or hardware error
the backup is switched in.  And yes, they have different power sources.)
The central program checks for the correct code on each of two different
hardware lines (the correct code is different for each line); if correct,
and all criteria are met to allow the sequence to be sent, the central program
requests the tone pairs for that sequence from another processor.  That 
processor (like everything else in the system, actually redundant processors)
has only one function: to store and deliver those tone pairs.  The processor
resides in a special vault and can only be accessed in order to program the
tone pairs (which are highly classified) before each launch.  The data line
between the central processor and the storage processor is electrically
connected ONLY when the ARM or DESTRUCT switch is actually thrown; this
prevents a wild program from retrieving the tone pairs. 

When the central program has retrieved the tone pairs, it formats a message
to the currently selected remote transmitter.  As the final step before 
sending the message, the program checks the switch hardware one more time 
to make sure the command is, in fact, requested.  If so, the message is sent
to the site on two modems (with different power supplies and geographically 
diverse communications paths) and, after sending the message, erases the tone 
paris from its memory.  The remote site, until this time, does not know the
tone pairs.  When the site receives and validates the message, it sends a
request for confirmation back to the central processor.  When Central
receives this request, it checks the switch hardware again and retrieves a 
fresh copy of the tone pairs from the storage processor to make sure that the 
site got the correct tone pairs.  If all these checks pass, Central issues
a go-ahead message to the site, which then (if the message is validated) 
actually transmits the sequence to the vehicle.  During this sequence of 
messages, if any message fails, it is retransmitted, with a check of the 
switch hardware before each transmission.

Let's look at some areas that could cause an accidental trigger:

1. Failure of switch hardware.  This would take at least six circuits failing 
   to the "1" state, while 12 others connected to them would have to NOT fail.

2. Central software error.  There is a lot of reliabilty checking, details of
   which are too long to repeat here; but even if there is a hole through it,
   the central program cannot get the tone pairs unless the switch is thrown!

3. Site software error.  Doesn't have the tone pairs until sent by Central.

4. Destruct receiver failure.  I didn't work with this directly (being 
   strictly on the ground side) but everything I've seen makes them look
   very reliable and fail-safe.

5. External sabotage.  A hostile agent would have to (1) steal the tone pairs,
   and (2) overpower our 10 kw CW transmitters which are saturating the
   destruct receivers with a 70 dB margin.  Alternatively, if someone tried
   to overpower the central area, I think they would fail.  Security is TIGHT
   around the central control area;  I don't think I can go into detail without
   upsetting NASA and the Air Force.

7. Internal sabotage.  One thing I did was to imagine that I was a saboteur
   and think of a way that I could program in a Trojan Horse to send a false
   command.  Eventually, the system was such that I could not do it.  NASA
   also hired an independent contractor to perform reliability analyses.
   NOBODY can send a command except the Range Safety Officer when he throws
   the switch.

The Challenger explosion was NOT caused by the Range Safety system, either
intentional or accidental.

I am really sorry about the length of this message, but I wanted to get all of 
that in.  All information contained herein is UNOFFICIAL and furnished for
information purposes only.  It is in no way official information from my
employer (RCA), the U.S. Air Force, NASA, or any other government agency.

Due to the sensitive nature of this incident, this article is not for 
reproduction or retransmittal without the express permission of the author.
Permission is hereby granted to Peter G. Neumann to include this material
in the RISKS electronic mail digest.

                                      Martin J. Moore
                                      mooremj@eglin-vax.arpa

[MARTIN: MANY THANKS FOR THIS EXTRAORDINARY MESSAGE.  
 READERS: PLEASE OBSERVE THE ABOVE CAVEAT SCRUPULOUSLY.  PGNeumann]


Re: news: Challenger lost (and note on self-destruct mechanism)

29 Jan 86 12:41:53 EST
                             [I presume this is from Earle S. Kyle, Jr... PGN]

Your mention of a destruct mechanism on airliners to foil hijackers
raises the question of possible terrorist activity in the shuttle
explosion. With the recent flap involving Libya, how certain are we that
the radio code that the Air Force range safety officer uses to destruct
shuttles gone astray was not compromised?

Although the slow motion video indicates some other mechanism besides on
board explosives initiating the destruction of the vehicle,  I'm
wondering if a high powered rifle bullet hit either the main fuel tank
or one of the solid boosters shortly after launch if that could have
given the same result we saw yesterday.  What makes me think of that is
the following: When I went to the 4th shuttle launch (STS-4), I noticed
that things were quite different in the press site area (where I was)
than it was for the two Apollo launches I attented (A-11, & A-17) in
that same area. The difference at STS-4 was the large number of armed
guards. When I asked about that, the reply was something to the effect
that there had been some intelligence that someone with a high powered
rifle might try to shoot at the thing during takeoff. As the shuttle
flights got more routine, I'm wondering if the security at the site got
a bit lax?

Does anyone know if a rifle shot on the big tank would be enough to
structurally weaken it such that during that portion of the launch with
maximum stress the thing might rupture?


Challenger ICING !!!

Werner Uhrig <CMP.WERNER@R20.UTEXAS.EDU>
Tue 28 Jan 86 14:42:45-CST
From TV-news coverage, I have the impression as if there might not have been
adequate attention paid to icing which is supposed to have occurred this
morning on the launch-pad.  Now while I have a healthy scepticism of
news-coverage, and the highest respect for NASA-efforts and diligence, I
still keep pondering the following news-tidbits:

1)  ICICLES (!!!), several inches long, were shown, supposedly filmed on the
    launch pad or launch-vehicle this morning.

2)  NASA sources were quoted as not being concerned very much any more when
    temperature rose above freezing around 10am.

3)  NASA was quoted as having been concerned about icicles breaking off
    during flight and puncturing some part of the craft during launch.
    No mention was made of any concern either about "the extra weight"
    or "the effect on flight surfaces".

4)  Some observers were commenting that the launch seemed to lift slower than
    usual (extra weight ??).

5)  The explosion seemed to occur when the shuttle's 3 engines were switched
    to "maximum - or 104% - thrust", and on my TV, seemed to occur at
    the point where Challenger is connected to the external tank.
    Could there have been an extra stress imposed on connecting
    fuel-lines due to a "larger than usual differential of acceleration
    push excerted by the solid-fuel-rocket asembly, to which the external
    tank is (solidly) connected, and the shuttle vehicle, due to the
    additional weight of ice on the vehicles?

I assume you all are similarly puzzled about things and, maybe, made other
observations that escaped me, which I, for one, would be most interested to
reading ....

    I sure hope it wasn't icing, the main killer of pilots ....

        NO cheers today from me,    )-: Werner


Big Brother, again

"Col. G. L. Sicherman" <colonel%buffalo.csnet@CSNET-RELAY.ARPA>
Wed, 29 Jan 86 11:43:25 EST
I sympathize with Keith Lynch (KFL@MC.LCS.MIT.EDU)'s argument (1:40).
All the same, some of his assumptions can be challenged.  For example:

>          The character of people in government today is very
> different from 200 years ago.  It is obvious that the signers
> of the constitution would have extended their protections of
> papers and places to computer files and disks, had they heard
> of such things. ... Had radio, TV, electronic funds transfer
> systems, and telephones been around in the days of Jefferson
> and Washington, I am sure that they would enjoy similar
> constitutional protection.

The structure of the U.S. government is formed for a people who get
most of their information from the press.  When most communication
was oral, federal government was unthinkable, because nobody knew
or cared about what was going on 1,000 miles away!  At the same
time, there was little need to "protect" expression that consisted of
talking to a few friends.  It was a form of communication that
disappeared instantly except in the minds of one's friends; there was
no enduring record to catch the eye of a jealous ruler or set before
a court.

The novel idea that the government ought not to prosecute _anything_
one printed arose naturally from the nature of print consumption.
Reading is something one does in _private;_ it allows one to weigh
conflicting ideas without getting caught up in rhetoric.  (Print
has often been blamed for the decay of rhetoric!) Moreover, books
as a medium have no side effects.  If a book insults you, you can
shut it up--something you cannot always do to a patron in a bar or
on the Net.

So I agree that the founding fathers would have protected the new media,
but only because they would not have understood the media's implications.
Printing was always an instrument of _mass_ communication: one person
talking to thousands.  There's an inherent, even ridiculous imbalance
in such a medium.  Nevertheless, it was adopted as the basis of U.S.
democracy because it was an improvement over word of mouth, and clearly
"here to stay"--until something better came along.

Electronic communication is instantaneous and ephemeral.  To the men
of 1789, it was "obvious" that the press (and public speech) ought to
be protected, and that checks and balances were needed in a representative
government.  To users of the Net, it is just as "obvious" that we can
govern ourselves, instead of electing weirdos and crooks to "represent"
us.

Col. G. L. Sicherman
UU: ...{rocksvax|decvax}!sunybcs!colonel
CS: colonel@buffalo-cs
BI: csdsicher@sunyabva

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