NASA's new "spacecraft" ideal for small families

Part of the groundwork for last month's test of off-the-shelf technology

for earth-to-spacecraft communications was laid in February 1999, when NASA

engineers launched the Voyager — Plymouth Voyager, that is.

The team working on NASA's Operating Missions as Nodes on the Internet

(OMNI) project outfitted a Plymouth minivan with scientific and communications

equipment similar to that found on an actual satellite. While OMNI team

members drove the Plymouth Voyager minivan — also known as the prototype

spacecraft — around Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., personnel

at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, pretended to be scientists

and brought up a Web site that provided controls for the video camera on

the "spacecraft."

The minivan was loaded with instruments, including a weather station

that produced data, a Global Positioning System receiver and a Web video

server. The team also put a standard Internet router in the minivan and

used NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System to relay the data to

the agency's ground station at White Sands, N.M.

The Voyager demo garnered so much interest that former shuttle astronaut

Ronald Parise, now a senior scientist at Computer Sciences Corp., deployed

the same prototype spacecraft — minus the minivan — on a ship in the Black

Sea on Aug. 11, 1999, to capture the last solar eclipse of the millennium.

Using the prototype, the ship's crew provided live weather data and images

of the eclipse via the Internet — and attracted about 7.5 million hits during

the event.

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