Risk is everywhere. That’s especially true when sending a rocket into space.
In the 1990s, some engineers at NASA were eager to try out a new system that would allow them to track and control a spacecraft’s location in real-time. The system relied on a signal between the ground and the rocket—one that was unsecured, keeping it lightweight to ensure speedier communication. Ross Leo, who was chief security architect for the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control Center at the time, pointed out that the unprotected signal could be vulnerable to interference by bad actors who could send false data about the rocket back to earth. But the engineers resisted.
“Back in those days, computers were slow enough and a lot weaker than they are today, and encryption ate up an awful lot of computing cycles, so signal delay and possible corruption of the signal was going to be a problem,” recalls Leo, who is now chief security officer for ObservSmart InvisAlert Solutions, which makes healthcare security software.
While Leo was clear on the need for security, ultimately, he and his team recognized the significance of the new system for space exploration, concluding that “intermittent” coverage would be enough if they found the right tools. The teams landed on encryption that used a new set of hardware and faster signal processors, which also had the added benefit of upgrading some of the systems the team used.
“It taught me that creativity can be one of our best aids as long as we're willing to bring it to the table,” says Leo.