Buzz Lightyear, you have mail

Astronaut John Grunsfeld is pushing to improve e-mail connectivity between Earth and
space so that crew members can exchange e-mail in space as easily as they can on the

“E-mail makes living in space a lot more utilitarian,” said Grunsfeld, who is
chief of the Computer Branch in the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center
in Houston. “If we’re going to be living and working in space, we need these
tools” to help crew members communicate with each other, ground control and their

Ever since NASA introduced 33-MHz IBM ThinkPad notebook PCs on a 1994 flight, the space
agency has been struggling to make better communications links, Grunsfeld said.
“Normal protocols like TCP/IP don’t work; you get a time-out,” he said.

A special protocol called Orbital Communications Adapter would allow a longer period of
several milliseconds while the communications signals bounce from satellites to the ground
or to the ship.

“It’s like TCP/IP but with a wider window,” Grunsfeld said. The protocol
would reside on an ISA card inside each ThinkPad.

Two NASA Johnson engineers, working mostly in their spare time, developed Orbital
Communications Adapter, Grunsfeld said.

“They thought we’d need it. They were right on the money. Management in the
early 1990s didn’t think it was needed,” he said.

The astronauts’ communications system cost about $1 million to develop, and
Johnson officials hope that better connectivity will let astronauts transfer e-mail files
faster and do Web browsing and videoconferencing in space, Grunsfeld said.

“We’d like to have computer communications just like what you expect at your
desk,” said T.J. Creamer, an astronaut in training at the Johnson center.

On STS-95, the flight that carried former Sen. John Glenn and landed Nov. 7, seven crew
members shared 18 166-MHz PCs with 4-Mbps modems on a wireless Microsoft Windows NT Server
4.0 network with Microsoft Exchange 5.5 e-mail.

As astronauts’ network connectivity improves, however, the nature of
interplanetary travel will impede it occasionally. E-mail packets “do get held up on
the ground,” Grunsfeld said.

“Sometimes the space shuttle is not in contact with the ground” because of
its position in space, he said.  

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