Astronauts call home via shuttle VOIP link

Astronauts call home via shuttle VOIP link


For the first time, astronauts on a shuttle mission have made telephone calls from space.

Last month, astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis made voice over IP connections to the public switched telephone network through a NASA private branch exchange.

The calls were the first operational test for a system that astronauts could use during extended stays on the International Space Station.

'Now the astronauts can call anywhere, and NASA wasn't really crazy about that,' said Bill Morgan, an engineer with Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

The technology chosen for the test was Cisco's Architecture for Voice, Video and Data. The company's AVVID tests were not listed among the official experiments for the Space Shuttle Atlantis mission, but a NASA spokesman said mission specialist Marsha S. Ivins made the first voice over IP call during the flight.

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size="2" color="#FF0000">NASA tested the voice over IP service during its Shuttle Atlantis mission last month.

NASA has not released any other information about the experiment. Morgan said astronauts had pushed for it because they wanted a way to talk privately with friends and family on Earth.

Until now, astronauts have always communicated by radio with mission control at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Mission control can patch the radio calls into the public telephone network, but the conversations are not private.

'They would like to make the environment up there a little more hospitable,' Morgan said.

NASA began testing voice over IP in its laboratories about six months ago, simulating the satellite delays in shuttle-to-Earth communications. The agency settled on AVVID because 'it worked out of the box' and was not disrupted by the delays, Morgan said.

Just software

When the Atlantis lifted off Feb. 7 to deliver the Destiny lab module to the space station, it carried Cisco SoftPhone software loaded on an IBM Corp. notebook PC. The software was the only AVVID element aboard the shuttle, Morgan said.

SoftPhone is based on Microsoft Corp.'s Telephony Application Programming Interface, which lets PCs interoperate with telephone equipment. Cisco's AVVID products also include telephone sets that plug directly into a LAN.

'The ultimate goal is to have hardware-based phones up there,' Morgan said. But hardware approval for shuttle flights takes longer than software approval does.

'They had already been flying laptops for several years,' he said, so astronauts settled on SoftPhone installed on an already approved notebook.

The notebook's Ethernet connection to the shuttle LAN linked to a Ku-band satellite through NASA's Orbital Communications Adapter router. On the ground, another OCA router linked to the LAN at Johnson Space Center. A Cisco VG200 voice over IP gateway connected the LAN to the PBX to access the public switched telephone network.

NASA also has installed several Cisco 7960 IP phones on its networks, Morgan said.

Ivins made the first telephone call from orbit on Feb. 11, shortly after 4 p.m. CST, to mission control. Afterward she immediately called another NASA employee on the Johnson center's LAN.

After work on the lab module was completed on the eighth day of the mission, Morgan said, other calls took place for about an hour from the shuttle through the Johnson PBX to outside numbers.

'We know there were 16 calls made, but we don't know who called whom,' he said.

The laboratory tests simulated a 1.8-second satellite delay, Morgan said. In the operational test, the maximum delay was about 1.2 seconds.


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