HOUSTON, December 21, 1998 — Earlier this month, suspended 250 miles above earth in the vast reaches of space, the six-astronaut crew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour began an extraordinary mission. By the time their flight came to an end, they had completed the historic first steps in the orbital construction of the International Space Station. Their mission took them on a 4.6 million-mile journey, far from their families back on earth, but the astronauts had an easy way to keep in touch with the folks back home. They used email.
James Grunsfeld, chief of NASA’s astronaut computer branch, says the astronauts feel strongly about having “our workplace in space mirror our workplace on earth in terms of access to information technology.”
Using Microsoft Outlook on the flight and Exchange Server on the ground, astronauts are able to keep in contact not only with Johnson Space Center, but also with their families. The most recent shuttle flight – a 12-day mission that began December 4th – marks the first time astronauts have used Outlook from space.
“It’s a bit of a timesaver for the crew,” says NASA spokesperson Eileen Hawley. “The commander can get on his laptop and work offline, write his letter to his family, and save it to his specific folder.” Then, back at Johnson Space Center, the email is pulled down off the server and sent on to family members.
Grunsfeld says most of the more than 600 messages the astronauts sent were personal messages to family, and email was restricted to family and NASA personnel. “The last thing I’d want in space is to have to wade through all my terrestrial email,” Grunsfeld said.
NASA has plans to set up a similar email laptop-based program on board the International Space Station. An international crew of three will begin a three-month stay at the station in January 2000, marking the beginning of permanent human residency aboard the outpost.