nCipher Security Blog

To the Moon and Back

Earlier this week, nCipher Security executives and customers had the privilege of hearing from two NASA employees during nCipher’s 2019 Americas HSM User Group Conference (HUG), which was held in the beautiful city of New Orleans.

Kicking off the guest speakers’ session was NASA’s Al Feinberg, Special Advisor to NASA Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN). Al launched into a discussion about why NASA (and the United States) are so invested in space exploration in general and the 2024 ‘Artemis’ expedition in particular. ‘Artemis’ is NASA’s program devoted to landing the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. Feinberg cited as some of the driving forces behind NASA’s expeditions several goals and ambitions: inspiring a new generation of explorers; proving technologies and capabilities for sending humans to Mars; establishing American leadership and strategic presence; and taking information learned in space and applying it to real-world, earth-bound situations.

Feinberg wrapped up his overview by introducing Jena Garrahy, Network Integrity Manager for SCaN. In her role, Garrahy develops and oversees the implementation and application of national security policies and NASA cyber and physical directives for all ground communications in NASA.

Garrahy’s compelling and lively session centered around the vast amount of communications technology supporting NASA’s missions, and SCaN’s commitment to keeping it secure. She noted the presence of satellites hovering above the Earth, observing the Sun, observing the Moon and planets, and investigating the origins of the Universe. She explained how NASA operates three networks – the Deep Space Network, the Near Earth Network, and the Space Network – all of which are devoted to diverse objectives.

She also shared some interesting anecdotes:

  • Apollo 13’s re-entry took six minutes, a minute and 20 seconds longer than usual. While this may not seem particularly striking, it’s a lifetime in the NASA mission control center world. During the re-entry there was a blackout period, a problem that compelled NASA to invent a new communications system dubbed ‘Tracking and Data Relay Satellite’ (TDRS). The TDRS’s provide constant communication between the ground and orbiting satellites, and have remedied the blackout problem. There are currently eight in orbit
  • The DustBuster, a small and streamlined cleaning device that was a ubiquitous presence in many households, was initially created for the Apollo program
  • In 1998, a NASA TDRS facilitated teleconferencing between Dr. Jeri Nielsen, a physician stationed at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, and doctors. While on a one-year scientific mission to this U.S. scientific research station at the South Pole, Nielsen self-diagnosed breast cancer. Her self-administered treatment was guided by these teleconferencing sessions before she was ultimately airlifted from the Station
  • Garrahy concluded her session by reiterating NASA’s commitment to securing communications. This is done through the application of federal frameworks such as NIST and FedRAMP; through boundary protection; internal controls; and monitoring capabilities. “NASA doesn’t just meet requirements, it exceeds them,” said Garray, and this is accomplished via strong identification and authentication; zero trust networking; employee education; and advanced analytics.

    As with all organizations, NASA is not immune to cybersecurity threats and breaches. In 2018, for example, a NASA high school competition was hacked and the results of the competition sabotaged. While the situation was ultimately remedied, Garrahy cited it as an example of a security challenge best overcome through cooperation and collaboration.

    Said Garrahy, “NASA makes you feel like your opinions matter – government or contractor. We need each other, and this cooperation is critical for our success.”

    For more information about past EDC and nCipher collaborations with NASA, check out this press release and blog. For more information about SCaN, visit the agency site. To learn more about nCipher, follow the company on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.