Apollo-Soyuz: an Integration Lesson

These days, East-West relations sadly seem to be unwinding, and it made me nostalgic for the thaw that started in the 1970’s; and the Apollo-Soyuz link-up came to mind. If you’re younger, or less into space than me, the Apollo-Soyuz mission was the first time ever that US and Soviet space craft co-operated in space. It was a big deal. Here were American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts greeting each other hundreds of miles above the earth, while on the ground we faced each other with huge armies and the fear of instant obliteration.

It was a big deal technically, too. Both American and Soviet spacecraft had ports, and had docked with their own space stations many times, but their docking ports were completely different! Neither side believed in the other’s technology, and they had very little contact with each other. They even filled their spacecraft with different air mixtures, at different pressures, so you couldn’t just float from one to the other, even if you could have connected them.

As I remembered watching the spacecraft approaching each other on a grainy, black and white TV; it struck me that it felt a lot like trying to integrate two 21st century business IT systems — back to the future I’m afraid!

By NASA (NASA Human Space Flight Gallery (image link)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe solution was as ingenious, complex and multilayered as any software integration. A special one-off “Docking Module” was built for the Apollo spaceship — you can see it on the front of the Apollo coming towards you on the mission patch (pictured right). It connected the two incompatible docking rings, acted as an airlock to protect against the different pressures and air mixtures, and last but not least, made sure the Apollo and Soyuz ships could undock safely afterwards!

Nowadays, docking different spacecraft is much simpler: the International Space Station expects all spacecraft to be equipped with a docking mechanism attractively called an “Androgynous Peripheral Attach System.” Clearly more engineers than marketeers! And so Russian, NASA, European and even private spaceships can all fly to the ISS, knowing they’ll be able to unload when they get there.

What does this mean for your IT systems? Well how about these three quick points to keep in the back of your mind:

  • If your software system vendors do not have a history of working together, expect it to be difficult to make their software to.
  • If they claim to have an ability to integrate, or to be standards compliant, ask for proof they have integrated with the target system you need them to.
  • You will need to integrate on multiple levels: not just logically at the interface itself, but also semantically in terms of the meaning of information, and perhaps even functionally — as in how the systems respond to that information.