The missile's payload, at first glance, seems unremarkable: an infrared imaging satellite outfitted with a mobile access router, a device that determines where to send data on a network. The router's manufacturer is Cisco Systems Inc., no stranger to building such hardware on earth.
So why fly it in space?
Cisco hatched the idea after looking for new ways to make money in the company's federal business, said Rick Sanford, Cisco's director of space initiatives. "We looked at our federal strengths," which included selling routers, switches and network devices for government agencies, he said. But Cisco was missing out on sales to military intelligence agencies, particularly in the communications and weapons market-a market, the company wagered, that could be worth $1.4 trillion over ten years.
So why hadn't Cisco had this bright idea before? For starters, there was no real customer. Since satellite makers have been in business, they've always installed their own, custom-made communications centers on satellites. The systems are efficient, but very expensive. And, obviously, since they're in orbit, they're terribly difficult to maintain and reuse.
Cisco figured that if it could prove its products worked in the vacuum of space, and that terrestrial communications standards were also viable, the company could shave 8 percent to 15 percent off the cost of building satellites, and tear open a market that led straight to the Defense agencies.
So engineers stripped down one of Cisco's mainstay products, slapped it onto a British satellite, and-with the cooperation of NASA and the Air Force-will spend the next five years seeing if Internet technology can function in the final frontier. Cisco will test a suite of applications, including e-mail and messaging technology.
Communications standards and protocols in space today have been developed specifically for spacecraft communication, Sanford said. The pilot project is a test of Internet protocols' strength in space as much as it is Cisco's hardware.
Sanford said the router would be switched on in about two weeks. Asked what happens if the experiment ends up a bust, Sanford lightheartedly said the company would have proven the idea doesn't work. But Cisco is betting the system won't fail. The company has made a significant investment in the project, Sanford said, not revealing the amount.
"We think this is our entrance fee" into a new market, he said.
The Homeland Security Department has had a fair amount of difficulty trying to educate people about the dangers of terrorism without scaring the daylights out of them.
Secretary Tom Ridge and his lieutenants might want to consider following the lead of the Public Broadcasting Service. The network that brought you Sesame Street now presents an online game called the Global Security Simulator. Players choose one of three terrorist threats-chemical, biological or nuclear attack-and then are drilled with true/false questions. A correct answer lowers the threat level on the Homeland Security color-coded alert system by a notch. A wrong answer raises it.
The game's intention, however, is to educate players about the true nature of terrorist threats, whether real or exaggerated. Some cover history, such as "True or False: There has never been a biological attack on U.S. soil." (False. There have been two, the first in Oregon in 1984, the other the anthrax attacks of October 2001.) Other questions highlight threats such as weapons proliferation. One question notes the staggering fact that in 2000 there were more than 500 reported incidents of illegal trafficking of nuclear or radioactive material across the Russian border.
"Our future depends upon making educated choices," the game's Web site says. "Armed with information, we can all help avoid Armageddon."