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Interview: The Space Station's IT guys

When computers on board the Space Station go down, the astronauts do the same as us -- they call IT. We spoke to the charming chaps at NASA's ISS helpdesk

It's the most expensive single thing ever built (£92bn and counting), the quickest manned vehicle in existence (17,300mph) and the staging point for future Moon and Mars missions. But when computers on board the International Space Station go down, the astronauts living there do the same as any office drone in Slough -- they call IT. We were lucky enough to meet Tyson Tucker and Joey Crawford, the NASA flight controllers responsible for maintaining uptime in mankind's first permanent space colony.

Tucker and Crawford work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as part of a three-shift team that provides IT support -- 24 hours a day, 365 days a year -- for the Space Station orbiting 250 miles above their heads. Their OCA (Orbital Communications Adaptor) team has its own MPSR (Multi Purpose Support Room) where they maintain data, video and voice links with the ever-growing International Space Station (ISS), oversee the LAN (local area network)... and probably invent AFMA (a few more acronyms).

What kind of IT do you have up there?

"We have a significantly large network on board the Station, comprising 68 IBM ThinkPad A31 laptops and 32 Lenovo ThinkPad T61p devices. One of the T61ps is a server, making it a client/server network with a couple of routers and an Ethernet backbone. There are both cabled routers and a couple of Wi-Fi access points up there. There's also a dedicated IP phone for phone calls and some limited video-conferencing abilities if astronauts need to see their families."

How do you choose what technology to use?

"Whenever we go to select a laptop for flying, we have a certification process to determine the best ones. We'll test it for how well it withstands radiation. [The ISS is exposed to as much radiation in a day as computers down on Earth are in a year.] We also test for off-gassing, in case the computer emits chemicals that could create fumes on the Station.

"You'd be surprised at how many computers would survive on the ISS. I can't think of an occurrence when we've have a computer fail from the radiation itself. It may reduce the lifetime of how long we can keep the equipment in orbit, but most of the time the failures are just like the ones here on the ground -- we'll have a hard-drive failure or we'll have an application problem and end up reloading the machine."

Can astronauts take their own netbooks, iPods or games consoles into space?

"We do have to control what they can bring up, but they can make requests and we'll assess them to see what can be accommodated. It's very rare actually -- most of the requests are for personal items. If the crew wants specific movies, music or TV shows, we can uplink them to the server and they can then access them from any computer."

How you move data to and from the ISS?

"We have a portion of a KU-band satellite that we control for uplink and downlink. We're talking about 3Mbps up and 10Mbps down, or maybe a little less for some overhead. That's our portion for moving files around. Everything is managed through the server and NASA, so there's no direct Internet connection for the crew.

"In fact, for email, the crew gets very limited updates, just three times a day. Every eight hours, the OCA officer in Houston will bring down their offline mail account and sync to the server on the ground. Emails they send then go out to the world, new ones come in, and we uplink them to the crew."

How is the ISS IT different from previous NASA missions?

"These are working scientists carrying out research, so the network is used for just about everything. In day-to-day work, the crew use their laptops to check procedures, to review their timeline and to check their email. Everything they need is on the computers on board. One big difference between the Space Station and the Shuttle programme is that the Shuttle still uses all paper, printed-out procedures. On the ISS, all the procedures are on the server. Anywhere you can plug your laptop into the server, you can work from there."

And what happens when something goes wrong?

"The crew is trained how to manage the computer systems and laptops on orbit. They go through procedures and work through malfunctions, so when they get there, they're very well aware of what they can handle. The team at Houston is here for when the crew sees something they're not used to, or haven't seen before, or can't fix themselves. They'll contact us and we'll research it and get a fix to them.

"We have a remote capability where we can go and help them on board, and we also have an exact duplicate of the ISS network here on Earth. That way we can mock up what's happening on board the Station and take a look at our products down here to see if we experience the same issue on the ground."

Do you ever tell the astronauts to just turn everything off and on again?

"One thing that really impacts the crew's day-to-day operations is if the file server itself fails. This forces them to reload the hard drive and re-establish all the network drives and all the apps. They actually have to get out the media and load the image to the hard drive. That's a significant hit for the crew because we can't do everything for them from the ground.

"But our uptime is pretty good. Over the last nine years, this has only happened twice -- and it so happens we were on console for both. Usually we can have it up again within 24 hours. That way we're not impacting multiple days."

There have been several instances when viruses have found their way on to the ISS. How do you try to prevent this?

"Every week we uplink new virus definitions. We uplink and deploy them straight away, so we're running pretty much as up-to-date as we can get. If there ever was a virus, we can pop that computer off the network, isolate it and figure out what the problem is. Even if it needs a complete re-wipe, it's pretty easy to quarantine. But the way our IT is set up, there's a network on board, there's a network on the ground, and they're very isolated from viruses on the Internet."

Have you ever had hackers infiltrating the ISS systems?

"The software we use to interface with the ground is just a file transfer back and forth, and it would be a very difficult thing to do. The chances of someone hacking up into the station is pretty much non-existent and it has never happened. Even if they could, the laptops themselves do not have a critical function like life support. There is a set of laptops that do provide the crew with cautions and warnings, but from a daily standpoint the astronauts really don't use them -- the ground monitors everything for them."

A 2007 report from the US Government Accountability Office suggested that failed laptops are 'tossed overboard to be burned up in the atmosphere'. Is this true?

"We don't just throw them out an airlock! We have had failed laptops in the past where we put them on a Progress vehicle [an expendable Russian cargo spacecraft used for disposing rubbish] and that does burn up in the atmosphere. But we don't always do this, it depends on the failure. If it's something we want to investigate or have the engineers have a look at, we'll try to return that laptop on board the Shuttle."

The ISS is still being built -- what does the future hold for its IT network?

"As we add modules and add capabilities on the orbit, our network is going to expand into those modules, whether that's adding more routers or adding more wireless access points. And every couple of years we'll take a look at advances in technology for both applications and hardware, to see how we can apply that to the network. For the most part with the laptops, we don't have to change them. They already do everything we need them to do, so you might only see a new laptop going on board every four years."

For more on the technology aboard the ISS, see the other half of our special: Space Station IT: High technology.