IP telephony proves to be out of this world

IP telephony’s promise to massively reduce long-distance call charges took on a whole new meaning recently as astronauts on NASA’s Space Shuttle used the technology to phone relatives on earth.

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By  Rob Corder Published  March 14, 2001

IP telephony’s promise to massively reduce long-distance call charges took on a whole new meaning recently as astronauts on NASA’s Space Shuttle used the technology to phone relatives on earth.

For several years, NASA astronauts aboard space shuttles have been able to talk to their families via a specially modified, pre-H.323 video conferencing application, but families had to come into the Mission Control Center (MCC), located in Houston, Texas. And due to an antiquated satellite communications system, NASA was unable to move IP packets between orbiting shuttles and ground stations during missions.

Now, with bi-directional Ethernet communications in place, the astronauts can ask for a variety of new applications, including the ability to place private telephone calls to their families and the chance to browse the Internet. “This is something a lot of astronauts have wanted for years, but it’s never been a critical issue for space shuttle flights,” says Parrish.

The IP telephone is based on a commonly available IBM Thinkpad notebook using Cisco’s Softphone technology. Complex routing technology allows the IP signal to travel to and from earth via satellites. These signals are accelerated to reduce the delay that an IP telephone call over a distance of 90,000 miles would ordinarily experience.

The resultant solution allows astronauts to call anywhere in the world from the Space Shuttle. What’s more, the call is virtually free, since the only segment of the connection that incurs charges is when the call hits earths public telephone network.

“The first time I ever saw someone making a private phone call from space in a movie was in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And darned if we didn’t meet that timeline. In the movie, that call cost $1.70. Our astronauts get the first 90,000 miles toll free,” said Parrish.

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