NASA, Web Pioneer

Despite NASA's internal communication problems, the agency has played a pioneering role in communication technology, and is developing breakthrough technologies that promise to extend the frontiers of digital media networks.

In 1971, the agency connected to ARPAnet, the military and scientific network that laid the foundations for the Web. Currently, Ames researchers are developing the Next Generation Internet (NGI), the high-speed network commissioned by Congress in 1996 in hopes of delivering ubiquitous broadband.

"NASA is an exploration organization, and we'll never open the frontiers by playing it safe. If you have a 10 out of 10 success rate, you've set mediocre goals."

Last May, the agency signed a deal with multimedia production company Dreamtime to put high-definition cameras in the International Space Station. (See sidebar, next page) And, next year, NASA is taking streaming media into orbit. In January 2002, an astronaut will board shuttle mission STS 1-110 holding a Panasonic camera and send images through an MPEG-2 encoder via satellite to the Johnson Space Center. The agency is also testing devices that may push the streaming frontiers even further. The Astrobiology unit — the group that looks for life in space — is testing 15Mbps streaming via satellite from a device in the Nevada desert.

Such activities draw huge volumes of users to NASA Web sites — on average, those sites registered 64 million hits per month last year, almost double the figure for 1999. In 1997, a single NASA site dedicated to Mars Pathfinder received over 50 million hits in a single day, a landmark figure for Web traffic. ("We are the biggest Internet event in history," declared NASA webmaster David Dubov.) This level of popularity for the Mars program made it all the more important for Goldin to explain the Mars Climate Orbiter crash convincingly.

In early November 2000, Goldin asked Charlie Redmond, webmaster at NASA's D.C. headquarters, to create an interactive videoconference on the Mars report. A physical meeting was out of the question, as it would have involved pulling staff away from their work and flying them to Washington. Goldin preferred streaming media to analog videoconferencing because he wanted to speak to his staff at their desks, rather than in conference rooms. Redmond searched the agency for streaming media experts and located Alan Federman, a computer engineer at the NASA-Ames research center in Moffett Field, Calif. "I'd been waiting for something like this to happen," says Federman.

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