NASA network blasts off with Fast Ethernet

NASA’s space shuttle fleet managers have upgraded their network at Johnson Space
Center in Houston to a Fast Ethernet backbone with switched Ethernet to desktop systems.


“We came off a 10-Mbps shared network, so this is much better,” said Joe
Capps, manager of network and desktop services for the United Space Alliance, or USA.


The alliance, a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., handles many of
NASA’s shuttle operations including flight software development, payload information
systems, crew training and staffing of mission control centers in Houston and at the
Kennedy Space Center in Florida.


USA is responsible for “all the operations involved in preparing the shuttle for
flight and the flight itself,” Capps said.


Plans as far as three years into the future might call for incorporating Gigabit
Ethernet or asynchronous transfer mode services into USA’s network, Capps said, but
“for the time being, we’re real set.”


USA’s Houston network uses switches from Cabletron Systems Inc. of Rochester,
N.H., and routers from Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., as well as commercial
office software running under Microsoft Windows NT. But most of the enterprise-level
software must be custom-developed because very little commercial software is available for
space vehicles.


USA, which has 10,000 employees, grew out of NASA’s 1995 decision to consolidate
its growing number of space shuttle program contracts under a single prime contractor.


Most work was being done under an existing Rockwell Corp. contract, and Lockheed Martin
did most of the processing and training. Rather than risk losing their separate shares,
the two companies formed USA and submitted the winning bid on the unified contract.


They began operating under the consolidated contract in October that year. Boeing
assumed Rockwell’s portion of the joint venture when it acquired Rockwell’s
aerospace business in December 1996.


Moving shuttle activities to a single contract has been a complex process. Full savings
from the consolidation will not be realized for some time, but improvements are happening,
NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown said, and “we’re very happy.”


USA’s Houston network has about 5,000 nodes. In the wiring closet are Cabletron
MMAC LAN hubs and SmartSwitch 6000 switches for dedicated access to the backbone plus
Cisco 7500 series routers. Off-the-shelf applications for office processes include
Microsoft BackOffice and Exchange Server.


USA’s WAN is the NASA Integrated Services Network, or NISN, another NASA
consolidation project that began in 1996. NISN brings together the NASA Communications
Network and the NASA Science Internet under Marshall Space Flight Center’s Program
Support Communications Network.


Integrating the network operations has been difficult because of different operational,
scientific and administrative requirements. Eventually, the Earth Observation Data
Information System Backbone Network also will be part of NISN, although NASA has no
timetable for the integration.


NISN procures telecommunications services from AT&T Corp.’s Network A under
the General Services Administration’s FTS 2000 program. Both AT&T and Sprint
Corp. provide NISN data networking services.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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