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Federman-Land

Federman has this notice pinned outside his cubicle: "Caution! You are entering a Feng Shui-free zone." Inside, Federman splits his office into different zones for each of the computer platforms and projects on which he works simultaneously. Next to Mac-Land, PC-Land and Unix-Land is a small personal area called Federman-Land, and a space cluttered with plastic building blocks and circuit boards called Robot-Land. Last year, he led a team of San Jose high school students to victory in a national robot-building competition. He put a RealPlayer movie of the contest on a NASA Web site, which brought his streaming expertise to Redmond's attention.

In December, Redmond and Federman showed Goldin streaming video at several different bandwidths. When he spoke on camera about the Mars report, Goldin wanted staff to "see his eyes move." Clearly, 56Kbps would not achieve the desired result. "When you're talking to someone about a crucial aspect of their job, gestures like frowns and squints are significant," says Redmond. "Dan likes meeting small groups of staff in person, face to face, and he wasn't happy with jerky, low-bandwidth video." Goldin was finally satisfied when Redmond showed him video streamed at 358Kbps.

Redmond and Federman spent late December and early January investigating NASA's Internet infrastructure. Redmond feared that hackers might be inspired by the Mars failures to sabotage the conference through a denial-of-service attack. He used a Real survey tool to verify the IP addresses connected to the conference.

Such security concerns are ever-present at NASA. On August 21, former NASA engineer Keith Cowing was scouring an agency site when he stumbled upon an active IP address to the LAN server on the space shuttle, scheduled for launch on mission STS-106 the following month. Cowing alerted the agency. "I didn't want hackers messing with the government's computer," says Cowing, who runs the independent reporting site NASAwatch.com. Agency officials removed the IP address within 24 hours. Detailed plans of the shuttle computer system can still be seen (minus the IP address) at another Cowing site, Spaceref.com.


Wiring for Webcast

Federman continued his investigation and discovered that the agency infrastructure was uneven. Ames, headquarters and Kennedy, already had the capacity to multicast. The Johnson Space Center, JPL and Huntsville locations installed the equipment quickly. But Dryden, Glenn, and Wallops Flight Facility were stuck with unicast. Staff at these centers left their desks and joined the conference in meeting rooms. They watched Goldin on LCD projectors and directed their questions through one or two people in the room with keyboards and Internet access. Some were surprised to find that the image was pixelated. "They were expecting TV-quality," says Internet engineer Jim Doumilin, who set up the webcast at Kennedy Space Center.

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After the webcast, Redmond spent the last two weeks of January interviewing staff on their reactions. More than 80 percent said they liked the format. A similar percentage said they thought the technology could help them with their work. Some found it easier to speak more honestly with Goldin hundreds of miles away. The medium combined visual intimacy with physical distance. "There was a lower intimidation factor," says Redmond. Agency administrators are expected to review Redmond's report in April. If approved, the Mars webcast will become a model for other streaming video conferences within NASA.

The initial response from headquarters is positive, and the high-profile subject matter of the conference has increased awareness of the technology among senior managers. "The visibility of the content opened up some doors," said Doumilin.

Advocates say that streaming videoconferencing is a good way of improving the agency's cohesion. "Streaming video reached staff who wouldn't have seen the conference otherwise," says Brian Dunbar, Internet services manager at NASA headquarters. Dunbar is part of ENASA, an "effort to understand the opportunities that advancing IT offers to improve the agency's processes, programs and communications." ENASA will be releasing a report later this year. "There is a physical plan in place to change the information architecture of NASA's Web sites, and the way the agency works internally," says Dunbar.

Beyond videoconferencing, streaming media has long played a part in other NASA operations. The agency's educational site quest.arc.NASA.gov gets around seven million hits per month for live events such as shuttle launches. In February, Quest streamed 3D simulations of hypothetical landing sites for the next Mars mission. NASA scientists answered live questions sent via e-mail about the different qualities of each landing location.

Distance learning is another application that NASA sees for streaming video. The agency has hired two Manhattan production companies to make online tutorials for agency project managers. Silver Screen Pictures and Digital Madness, the team responsible for Goldin's streaming videoconference, shot 50 QuickTime movies at JPL with the Mars Pathfinder team, describing the lessons they learned as managers of that mission. "We don't do a very good job of transferring knowledge from one project to another," the Pathfinder team told the producers at Silver Screen Pictures. "We need to do more of that." The tutorials will be available to NASA staff via agency intranets beginning in April.

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