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"A catalogue of high profile accidents"
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Monday, 3 July, 2000, 01:44 GMT 02:44 UK
Hacker compromised astronaut safety
Spacewalk BBC
Communication was routed through the Mir
The lives of space shuttle astronauts were put at risk by a computer hacker who overloaded Nasa's communication system in 1997, the space agency has told the BBC.

It shows the potential that hackers have for doing some real damage to Nasa's mission and astronaut safety

Nasa's Roberta Gross
As the Nasa shuttle orbiting the Earth docked with the Russian Mir space station, a hacker interfered with the computer systems that monitor the heartbeat, pulse and medical conditions of the crew.

Click here to join a Panorama discussion on cyber-crime

British-born astronaut Dr Michael Foale - who was on the affected mission but not told about the emergency - told the BBC's Panorama programme he was intrigued by its revelations.

In the past year alone, the space agency has experienced more than 500,000 cyber attacks.

Astronaut safety

There are fears in Washington's corridors of power that America's much-vaunted technological superiority has made it a target for its enemies.

Michael Foale BBC
Michael Foale was not told of the emergency
Roberta Gross, inspector general at Nasa, told Panorama: "We had an activity at a Nasa centre where a hacker was overloading our such an extent that it interfered with communications between the Nasa centre, some medical communications and the astronaut aboard the shuttle."

When asked if this was a critical moment, Gross replied: "Well, Nasa has a lot of fail-safes and it makes sure that there's not just one way of communicating, so the transmission ultimately went through...but it shows the potential that hackers have for doing some real damage to Nasa's mission and astronaut safety."

However, after the programme was broadcast, Nasa denied that astronauts' lives has been put at risk.

"The transmission of routine medical information was slightly delayed due to a computer hacker," the agency said in a statement.

"There has never been an interruption of communication service with the Shuttle due to computer hacker attacks. The command and control communications links between Mission Control and a Space Shuttle in orbit are extremely well insulated."

Panorama's investigation focuses on how internet and computer systems have become the vulnerable spots in the defences of Western nations.

Cyber detectives

Ms Gross said there was a growing problem with hackers at the space agency, describing Nasa as "a symbol of frontiers that are still open for America".

Cybercafe in Malaysia AP
Nasa has reported 500,000 cyber attacks in the last year
She said: "We invite the public in because it is an exciting place and we want them to see it and so that's part of our mission.

"The problem is that hackers come in and they stay in."

Nasa has built up its own squad of cyber detectives, experts who track down interlopers.

They have powers of arrest and they work with government defence departments and police forces all over the world.

Technological leverage

But US Senator John Kyl warned: "There is a point here that you can't attack the United States frontally because of our military power but you can attack us at our weak spots.

Shuttle launch AP
Space shuttle: A target for hackers
"Clearly the internet and the reliance on technology generally offers an opportunity to attack both the civilian sectors as well as the military sectors that give countries leverage that they wouldn't otherwise have."

The latest revelations by Nasa follow the outbreak of the "Love Bug" computer virus which infected four classified military systems in the United States.

Panorama reporter Jane Corbin also talks to Michael Buen, suspected of creating the Love Bug which spread from a Manila slum to computer systems across the world.

Panorama's Cyber Attack will be screened on BBC One at 2200 GMT on Monday, 3 July.

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See also:

29 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Love Bug suspect to be charged
30 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Interpol patrols the web
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A - Z: Hack attack
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AOL hit by hackers
06 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Virus hits secret Pentagon network
05 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Are computer viruses unstoppable?
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Why write computer viruses?
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