Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sabotaged NASA Computer Not "Non-Critical"

Security breaches can be dealt with in any number of sensible ways. However, NASA has chosen a risky strategy in seeking to downplay news that employees at a NASA subcontractor, Invocon, deliberately sabotaged a computer destined for the International Space Station (ISS).

Yesterday, NASA said, in essence, "no big deal". The sabotaged computer was a "non-critical" component.

This is, of course, nonsense. Everyone knows there is no such thing as a "non-critical" component in space. Every gram of mass counts - every kilogram placed in low earth orbit requires 20 kilograms of fuel to get it there, for starters - and every sensor must function.

The consequences of sensor failure are well-known, post the Challenger disaster.

Ten years ago, prior to co-founding Authentium, I worked in the space industry. During my time there, I met and worked alongside a lot of extremely smart engineers - rocket scientists - including some of the Saturn V guys, and some of the engineers charged with designing components for the shuttle and the ISS.

The sabotaged computer sensor was destined to monitor stress on an ISS truss segment - in orbit. This is not a "non-critical" task. The truss is the most critical structural component of the ISS there is - it is the component that all other ISS modules and components are connected to. Here's an overview, courtesy of

The truss is the backbone of the ISS. When it is completed, it will be the length of a football field, with its axis perpendicular to the station's main axis. Labs, living quarters, payloads and systems equipment will be directly or indirectly connected to it. Also attached will be U.S. solar arrays supplying enough power to light a town.

In other words, the truss "holds everything". Had the computer flown "as is", the sensor would have been blind to any problems with the monitored truss segment, or, as NASA puts it, the sabotage "would have prevented the collection of structural performance data".

In user-speak, this means non-critical data like "this truss is under critical stress, and under-performing relative to the design spec" could potentially have gone unnoticed.

This is hardly likely - space-bound components are tested rigorously prior to launch, which is how this was discovered. But that isn't the issue. The issue is that NASA is once again making a strategic mistake by downplaying this security breach.

They should be showing how committed they are to security by taking extremely touch action - like immediately suspending all work with this contractor, pending a third party investigation, and invoking the maximum financial penalties.

If you think that is harsh, consider this: this sabotaged computer appears to have originated from the same contractor that provides the sensors charged with monitoring the integrity of the space shuttle's wings - i.e. the mechanism designed to prevent another Challenger explosion.

This is a non-critical issue? I think not.

UPDATE: In a separate development, NASA chiefs announced today (Saturday) that they will impose a 12 hour "bottle to throttle" drinking ban on astronauts.

Earth to NASA: you need to do a much better job of reading the tea-leaves. Control of an asset into which tens of *billions* of taxpayer dollars have been poured maybe warrants a tad more discipline than a 12-hour "dry-out" of pilots and commanders.

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