The Remaking of NASA & Kennedy Space Center

Five years ago today, at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), President Obama laid out his vision for NASA and space exploration in the 21st century. Yesterday, for a few seconds at least, time seemed to stand still as I stood with a small invited team of NASASocial members on the banks of the newly opened ITL Causeway viewing area at KSC to watch the launch of the NASA SpaceX CRS-6 mission. Standing about two miles from launch pad 40, the moment I had been waiting three days for was marked by the launch control center announcer’s voice slowly counted down “3 … 2 … 1 … liftoff”. It is a magic moment that anyone who has ever seen a space launch will never forget.

Even with all the great 4K video footage of modern launchs, there is nothing like being there live. I watched the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with its Dragon spacecraft slowly lift off the pad towards the space station. Then less than 10 seconds later the sound waves hit. Over 1 million pounds of thrust at under two miles is not subtle, nor is it something any sound system in the world can replicate. You can literally feel the sound as it rolls up the causeway.

With all the excitement of a launch, it is sometimes easy to forget the purpose. Sure, as outlined in the NASA Press Kit the Dragon capsule was carrying water, food, and spare parts up to the astronauts in the international space station. But a big reason those astronauts are up there is to help conduct science experiments that can’t be done on earth. In conjunction with NASA, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) manages the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory. CRS-6 carried a number of CASIS academic and commercial science experiments including ones to study bone growth and specialized types of proteins made by immune cells.

Presidential visions and 20 year NASA plans can be inspiring during a speech, but how is KSC doing in executing on that plan five years into it. In the three days leading up to the launch, I had a chance to find out. After stopping to receive my NASASocial credentials at the NASA badging office just outside KSC Gate 3, I drove onto the sprawling KSC facility and turned left down a long road leading to the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the launch complex 39 press site. For several minutes as you drive down the road the VAB looms ever larger in front of you and it is hard to believe you are driving right up to it.

As impressive as the VAB is from the outside, the immense size of the 37 story building is best experienced from the inside. Standing on a sixteenth floor work area one can look out and see the sign marking the height of the shuttle when it was erected vertically and attached to the shuttle solid rocket boosters and immense fuel tank. Don’t drop any wrenches, cell phones, or sunglasses from here.

Of course even more amazing is to look up and see the sign at the top of the building marking where one of its original occupants, the Apollo program’s Saturn 5 rocket once stood. Then just a bit below that is a new sign labeled SLS. More on SLS later.

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has joined with commercial partners SpaceX and Boeing for the Commercial Crew System which in about two years will start ferrying astronauts to the space station and back. The SpaceX system builds on the current Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule used for current unmanned commercial resupply missions while Boeing is developing a new vehicle dubbed CST-100 both of which will launch out of KSC. SpaceX is also joined by Orbital Sciences Corporation in space station commercial resupply missions, although Orbital is currently undergoing changes to their design after last year’s tragic crash.

Each NASA’s commercial crew program flight will be able to carry at least four crew members to the space station. This will allow the space station to be manned by a crew of 7 instead of the current 6 and nearly double the crew-hours available each week for experiments. While that math may sound funny, it is due to the many other non-scientific tasks the crew must undertake. Today, only about 40 hours a week of crew time are available for scientific experiments.

Last year, SpaceX signed a 20 year lease for KSC’s launch pad 39A, previously home to both shuttle and earlier Apollo launches. Touring the pad this week, the shell of the new SpaceX vehicle assembly hanger is nearing completion to the left of the pad. SpaceX will use this building to assemble both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets with their payloads. A new transporter-erector vehicle will then move the assembled rocket, still horizontal, to the launch tower and then erect the rocket to its vertical launch position.

With commercial partners now primed to take over transporting crew and supplies to low earth orbit and the space station, NASA is now freed to focus on greater challenges including deep space exploration and future manned missions to Mars. For that role, NASA is building a rocket even more powerful than the Saturn 5 from the Apollo program, SLS. SLS will launch from a new mobile launch platform under construction today outside of the VAB.

Inside the VAB, one of the giant 50 year old Saturn 5 and Shuttle transporters is being retrofitted to carry the heavier SLS vehicle which when mated to the mobile launch tower will weight more than ten million pounds.

The transporter will roll under the SLS mobile launch platform, carry it into the VAB for SLS rocket assembly, then move the entire platform out to launch pad 39B.

During this week’s trip to KSC I was honored to hear four time astronaut and KSC director Bob Cabana talk about the transformation KSC has undergone in the last five years. Standing out on the press viewing area by VAB it is hard to argue with the progress Bob, KSC, NASA, and their commercial partners have made in making KSC into a multi user spaceport. SpaceX is launching from Pad 40 and rebuilding Pad 39A under a 20 year lease. United Launch Alliance, another commercial partner, is launching out of two other pads for NASA and the Air Force. Boeing is getting ready to assemble the CST-100 at KSC. And NASA itself is well underway to returning the VAB to its earlier glory with the nation’s new SLS headed to Mars and beyond. Orchestrating such complicated projects, across commercial companies and federal agencies, to build and operate a diverse set of space vehicles, is no small task. But Bob and the rest of the NASA team, along with their commercial partners, are off to a good start.

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How NVIDIA GPUs Support NASA’s Space Programs

Most of the team attending this week’s NASA Social SpaceX CRS-6 launch either play computer games on NVIDA GeForce GPUs or have kids who do. But I also received a lot of questioning looks when I said my interest in the launch was in the application of GPUs to supporting the space program. So here are a few examples.

With yesterday’s launch being scrubbed at T-3 minutes due to anvil clouds, weather is top of mind approaching today’s 4:10.40 pm (ET) instantaneous launch window. While last minute weather aborts are based mainly on realtime weather radar of the launch site, we have all become used to routinely seeing 10 day weather forecasts from numerous commercial web sites. These forecasts typically start with global weather simulations generated by one of the national weather services. Billions of numerical calculations are required to model the interactions occurring on earth and in our atmosphere. Using these global weather models and simulations as the starting point, regional models are then often used to provide more localized forecasts. Even the world’s most powerful supercomputers are not yet powerful enough to model the weather days in advance at a small enough scale to 100% accurately forecast the weather in a localized area like the Kennedy Space Center launch site.

Just as NASA is modernizing many of the Kennedy Space Center facilities in preparation for the upcoming Space Launch System, leading weather researchers around the world are updating their weather forecasting software to take advantage of powerful new GPU technology. One good example is the work by MeteoSwiss and CSCS on the COSMO regional weather model. Just like any backpacker has their favorite Swiss army knife and any foodie has their favorite Swiss cheese, everyone in the supercomputer field knows that CSCS operates the largest GPU powered supercomputer in Europe and has very accurate weather forecasts. The weather impacts everyone, no matter if you are trying to launch a spacecraft, take a commercial aircraft flight, or walk across the street on a cloudy day.

Now back to today’s CRS-6 launch. Sitting atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is the Dragon spacecraft, an unmanned capsule carrying over 4000 pounds of supplies for the International Space Station. Last year, SpaceX unveiled their next generation Dragon v2 spacecraft designed to carry up to 7 astronauts to the space station and back.

The 15 minute video on YouTube is worth a watch for more details. About 13 minutes into the video, Elon Musk steps into the spacecraft and shows off the pilot control displays, which have been widely reported to use an NVIDIA SOC (system on chip). Today’s NVIDIA Tegra line of SOCs incorporate smaller versions of the same GPUs used in some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. This greatly simplifies life for software developers by enabling a scalable developer platform ranging from $192 NVIDIA Jetson TK1 developer kits to multi-million dollar GPU supercomputers that can run the same programs (albeit at different speeds).

Of course another area where GPUs are broadly used is indirectly related to NASA in that processing the science data from experiments carried out in space often uses GPUs. CRS-6 carries several science experiments that will generate data similar to what is routinely processed by GPU powered university systems like Clemson’s Palmetto cluster.

Last but not least, GPUs are increasingly being used to simulate future rocket engines, allowing them to be more efficient, powerful, and safe. Many of the rockets flying today are based on decade-old designs and could only be tested by firing them off in the middle of the desert. Just as a modern car is safer today because manufacturers can use computers to simulate many thousands of crashes instead of just test-crashing a few physical cars, future rocket engines will be safer because GPUs will provide the computational power necessary to simulate flying the rocket which involves not only complex computational fluid dynamics simulations but also molecular level simulations of the combustion process.

At NVIDIA, we are passionate about all the uses of GPUs, but for now, I’m most excited about that moment, planned for 4:10.40 pm ET today, when we hopefully hear those 3 magic words “we have liftoff”.

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NASA SpaceX CRS-6 Pre-Launch Tour

After flight delays getting into Orlando last night due to thunderstorms, Sunday started as a beautiful day for the NASA Social team participating in the NASA SpaceX CRS-6 pre-launch tour.

You can see some of the pictures of my fellow NASA Social team members on this FaceBook page and I’m posting all of my pictures on SmugMug.

This morning we were treated to a tour of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), originally built to assemble payloads including the Apollo missions on top of the Saturn 5 rocket. More recently, the VAB is where Space Shuttle flights were prepared for Kennedy Space Center launches. Here is a view from the 16th floor of the VAB, where workers might have stood preparing the shuttle for launch.

The VAB is not used for SpaceX Falcon CRS flights and is currently undergoing modifications in preparation for the upcoming NASA Space Launch System (SLS) where the Orion crew launch vehicle will see assembly on top SLS.

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Following Next Week’s SpaceX CRS-6 Launch

Next week I have the great privilege to be part of the @NASASocial team covering the CRS-6 International Space Station resupply mission launch on the SpaceX Falcon9 rocket.

For those who want to follow the launch on Twitter, @NASAKennedy, @ExploreSpaceKSC, @NASA, and @NASASocial will all be posting updates, as of course will I @marchamilton. Another great Twitter resource for space flight coverage is @spaceflight101

On Facebook, you can follow the launch on NASA’s page.

If you are a Google+ fan, follow +NASA

Finally, NASA TV will also broadcast the launch.

As exciting as next week’s launch is, SpaceX is working on even more exciting projects. Check out the SpaceX talk at last month’s GPU Technology Conference on designing a new, methane-fueled engine powerful enough to lift the equipment and personnel needed to colonize Mars. A vital aspect of this effort involves the creation of a multi-physics code to accurately model a running rocket engine. The scale and complexity of turbulent non-premixed combustion has so far made it impractical to simulate, even on today’s largest supercomputers. In the talk, SpaceX presents a novel approach using wavelets on NVIDIA GPUs, capable of capturing physics down to the finest turbulent scales.

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Technology Driven Business Models (aka unlimited storage, FLOPS, & bandwidth)

Recently, Amazon announced unlimited storage on their Cloud Drive service for about $5 a month. The Microsoft Cloud and Google also offer similar (although not unlimited) personal cloud storage services. Cloud Drive is great for individuals, and all the large public clouds have plenty of commercial, industrial-strength cloud storage offerings too. Some large organizations are even banding together to create their own cloud-like storage which can be more highly tailored to their performance and other specific requirements. James Cuff, Harvard University Assistant Dean for Research Computing points out on Twitter how the university, as part of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC), makes it easy to use similar cloud storage.

Of course as MGHPCC executive director John Goodhue points out, making it fast and easy isn’t just about having large amounts of storage but also requires fast network connections, and the right networking protocols and software.

A similar story is taking shape in computation. Sun Microsystems launched one of the first public clouds in 2005 with a basic $1 per CPU/hour and $1 per GB/month offering, a year before Amazon officially launchd AWS in 2006. Today Amazon and Softlayer already offer GPU instances in their public clouds. While not quite free, the latest NVIDIA Titan X GPU offers a whopping 7 TFLOPS of compute capability (single precision) for $999. One might ask how much would Amazon have to charge for their Prime service to offer unlimited FLOPS along with their unlimited storage Cloud Drive service?

Of course, just like Goodhue points out that storage requires networking and software to be useful, the same is true for FLOPS. You need fast connections (between the GPU and the rest of your server and data center) and you need the right software. Since last week’s announcement of Titan X, I’ve had several customers write to me praising the performance of the card, especially when combined with NVIDIA’s cuDNN deep neural network library. And new NVIDIA interconnects like NVLink will let next generation GPUs accelerate applications even more.

Storage, FLOPS, network switches all have one thing in common, they require power to move data. Already, on a modern processor, the average power used by the actual floating point unit is actually less than the power required to move the operands from memory to the floating point unit, and then to move the result back again. If Amazon charged the right amount for moving data around on a processor, it wouldn’t be too hard to offer the FLOPS themselves for free. Don’t worry, Amazon doesn’t charge consumers extra to move data into and out of your Cloud Drive. Although on a larger scale, Amazon and all major public clouds charge for bandwidth into and out of their data centers for most commercial services.

Technology advances have allowed both the providers and the users of public clouds to develop innovative business models. But we are still only at the start of cloud adoption. New technology like NVIDIA shared virtual GPU (vGPU) allow not just storage and computation to be moved into the cloud, but a user’s entire desktop. Anyone who has used a Chromebook has had a flavor of the productivity locked up in the hundreds of millions of desktop users who have been turned into unwilling system administrators. Being able to deliver a full designer or power-user desktop, rich workstation-class 3D graphics, to any laptop, tablet, or smartphone will drive a new wave of enterprise and public cloud adoption.

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GTC15 Keynote Live Blog

11:11 Have a great GTC everyone.

11:11 Jensen wraps up. Titan X, the world’s fastest GPU, DIGITIS DevBox GPU deep learning platform, Pascal – 10x Maxwell for deep learning, Drive PX deep learning platform for self-driving cars.

11:04 Jensen – I get excited every time I get an [Tesla] OTA

10:59 10-50 MPH in urban environments is the most challenging part of autonomous driving, but we know how to solve it and will be there in a few years

10:58 Elon – Tegra will be a real enabler for autonomous driving

10:55 2B cars on the road, about 100M manufactured each year, 20Y replacement cycle, we won’t have 100% self-driving or 100% electric cars for a long time

10:52 Self driving cars will be like elevators (elevators used to have human operators)

10:50 Applause welcomes Elon Musk on stage

10:49 Drive PX DevKit, $10,000, May 2015

10:47: AlexNet on Drive PX, 184 frames per second

10:34 Jensen shifts discussion to ADAS, I think his special desk must be coming on stage soon

10:31 Key Pascal Features

10:28: Coming next year, Pascal, mixed precision, 3D memory, NVLink, 10X faster than Maxwell for deep learning, *very rough estimates

10:21 DIGITS DEVBOX

10:19 DIGITS Deep GPU Training System for Data Scientists. Process data, configure DNN, monitor progress, visualize layers.

10:15 Walking through some automated image captioning results. Thanks to all those Amazon Mechanical Turks who helped caption the original training data and to Julie B. for countless hours of reviewing results to pick out the most interesting examples

10:12 Andrej Karpathy describes how ConvNets and Recurrent Nets can be joined together for automated image captioning.

10:07 Deep learning revolutionizing medical research, predicting toxicity of new drugs, understanding gene mutation to prevent disease, detecting mitosis in breast cancer cells, groundbreaking work

10:06 Very glad to see EyeEm listed as one of the start-ups doing GPU-accelerated deep learning.

10:04 Volumetric rendering being done by Nvidia IndeX

9:58 Mike Houston joins Jensen to help explain how deep neural networks, specifically AlexNet, are processed on a GPU. No rabbits were harmed in the processing (have to watch the video).

Titan X with cuDNN2

9:40: #gtc15 on Twitter. You don’t have to be here to know that the press tables are full

9:39: Titan X, $999. Clapping.

9:36 Titan X for Deep Learning, training AlexNet, 43 days on 16-core Xeon, 2.5 days on Titan X + cuDNN.

9:31 Epic Games trailer – kite, need to watch the video, words don’t capture the beauty, 100 square miles (about the size of Silicon Valley), running in realtime on a single Titan X

9:30 Titax X. World’s fastest GPU. 8B transistors, 3072 CUDA cores, 7 TFLOPS SP, 12GB memory, based on Maxwell

9:28 Rolling Titan X video

9:27 Part of our promise is access to the platform. By putting CUDA in every GPU we make it easy for every developer in the world to access

9:25 Our promise is to accelerate your code, striking a balance between ease of programming and speed.

9:24 54,000 GPU teraflops around the world today, 3 million CUDA downloads, 60,000 academic papers

9:15 4 things to talk about 1) A new GPU and deep learning, 2) A very fast box and deep learning 3) Roadmap reveal and deep learning 4) Self driving cars and deep learning

9:13 Jen-Hsun comes on stage. GTC is about developers, about sharing ideas, about being inspired

9:11 Opening video starts, “do you remember the future … its here”. Going to be a lot of discussion of deep learning.

9:09 Tune into the Livesteam to watch.

9:08 Packed house for the #gtc15 keynote. Announcer asking everyone to take their seats

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Last Minute Guide to GTC15

This year’s GPU Technology Conference officially kicks off at 16:00 PT today with early badge pickup, followed by posters & welcome reception at 17:00. Of course that will just be warm up for Tuesday’s opening keynote including a special not to be missed appearance by Elon Musk joining Jen-Hsun Huang on stage for a conversation on self-driving cars and deep learning.

If you just have time to do one thing before heading off to GTC15, download the GTC Mobile app from the Google Play or iTunes store.

While the amazing keynotes are reason enough for any visual computing fan to attend, GTC is a GPU developer conference at its core. While you don’t have to be a GPU developer to attend, most of the 500+ sessions are technical in nature, covering a diverse range of topics from Astronomy to Web acceleration.

On Wednesday, the Emerging Companies Summit will award $100,000 to one lucky early stage startup. Of course, when you consider the previous companies who have participated, $100,000 seems like small change. Just ask Oculus Rift (acquired by Facebook for $2 billion), Gaikai (acquired by Sony for $380 million), Natural Motion (acquired by Zynga for $527 million), or Keyhole (the progenitor of Google Earth).

This year, the first OpenPOWER Summit is being hosted as part of GTC. This seems only fitting as OpenPOWER was the first processor architecture to adopt NVIDIA’s NVLink technology and also was at the core of the DOE’s $325 million CORAL award and related FastForward 2 projects.

The NVIDIA technology won’t be limited to inside the San Jose Convention Center. The GTC15 Ride and Drive program offers GTC attendees the chance to test-drive NVIDIA powered cars from Audi, BMW, Mini, Tesla Motors, and Volkswagen.

Finally, one of my favorite events is going to be the first ever NVIDIA Iron Chef challenge, Tuesday from 5-7 pm, where the solution architect teams from NVIDIA and VMware battle it out to see who can install a complete NVIDIA Grid vGPU with VMware Horizon and vSphere environment, starting from scratch, in under one hour. If all goes according to plan, in the second hour, the losing team will have to relinquish their servers and watch the winning team double the capacity of their GPU-accelerated desktop virtualization environment.

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