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Nortel plays role in shuttle launch

Company's gear will help keep Discovery in touch with NASA control centers. Also: Keeping reporters at the launch site connected.

Nortel Networks is playing a big role in the Discovery flight, NASA's first shuttle mission in two years.

The telecommunications provider helped NASA upgrade Internet Protocol communications equipment on the space shuttle and in the command centers to ensure constant communication between Discovery and the ground crew. It also supplied gear to build a temporary wireless network to accommodate journalists at the launch site. Discovery blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 7:39 a.m. PDT Tuesday.

"We've had a long-standing relationship with NASA built upon their expectation of reliability," said Scott Gibbs, general manager of Nortel's federal business unit. "And we've consistently delivered on those expectations. It's critical now more than ever that these networks are as reliable as possible."

The space program had been grounded since February 2003, when the shuttle Columbia, which suffered damage to a wing from falling debris as it launched, broke up as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, killing the seven-member crew.

Now the program is back on track. Discovery's 12-day mission is to bring supplies to the international space station, as well as to conduct a range of safety tests developed after the 2003 disaster.

Discovery has been outfitted with new technology in an effort to help prevent future tragedies. Specifically, NASA has added sensors on the wings of the craft to warn astronauts of any objects striking them. A digital camera has also been installed to keep tabs on the external fuel tanks.

Data collected from the sensors and cameras will be fed back to NASA's mission control stations via the IP network based on Nortel's equipment. The network will also allow astronauts to communicate with NASA's control centers and the international space station. Nortel has supplied NASA with IP gear for the past six years.

Journalists covering the launch are doing so with the help of a temporary wireless network that Nortel helped NASA build. The network is designed to let reporters file stories from a 6-acre press area at the launch site.

Nortel helped NASA build the network in a matter of weeks. It uses a meshed architecture, which allows wireless access points to communicate with one another without the need of a direct connection to fiber. A network of the same size and capacity would have taken months using traditional fiber technology, said Nortel's Gibbs. With this network, reporters can use wireless-enabled laptops and handheld devices to access the Internet, e-mail and other applications while covering the flight.

Wireless meshes are still relatively new. But many communities around the country are considering the technology to deploy Wi-Fi citywide.

"The technology is becoming much more mainstream now," said Craig Mathias, a principal analyst with Farpoint Group. "This deployment is significant in that it is shows how pervasive wireless mesh is becoming. Soon we'll take it for granted."