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February 19, 2013

Silence: NASA Loses Contact with International Space Station

By Jacqueline Lee, Contributing Writer

Problems aboard a spacecraft can start with something small. Remember Apollo 13? Astronaut Jack Swigert was asked to “stir the tanks,” a routine task which resulted in an oxygen tank explosion that crippled the craft’s service module.

Fortunately, nothing serious transpired this morning for NASA. A routine software update caused NASA to lose contact with the International Space Station (ISS) at 9:45 a.m. EST this morning.

Communications were restored at 12:34 p.m. EST.

"Flight controllers were in the process of updating the station’s command and control software and were transitioning from the primary computer to the backup computer to complete the software load when the loss of communication occurred," NASA officials explained in a statement.

During the equipment failure, ISS astronauts including two Americans, three Canadians and two Russian cosmonauts were only able to communicate with the earth every 90 minutes as they passed over Russia.

During the flybys, Commander Kevin Ford told NASA that the craft was “flying straight” and that the crew was in “good shape.”

Officials at NASA instructed the crew to switch to a backup computer to restore communications.

NASA downplayed the incident, insisting that no one had panicked at Mission Control. The situation wasn’t unprecedented, although NASA did view it as a cause for concern.

In 2010, the ISS lost contact with NASA after the failure of a primary computer. The outage lasted about one hour.

On January 30, NASA launched a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-K) designed to boost communication between spacecraft and ground stations on Earth. The ISS sends all data to NASA through TDRS satellites.

Two more new TDRS devices will be launched between now and 2014 at a cost of between $350 million and $400 million. On average, NASA supports approximately 100 missions per day.

Before the launch of the first TDRS in 1983, spacecrafts could only communicate with NASA when they approached ground stations.

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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