Companies to bring US shuttle mission to the Web

When the Space Shuttle Discovery roars into space on its scheduled 12-day mission -- the first since the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in February 2003 -- three companies will be working to provide live, up-to-the-minute flight details via Web sites and video feeds.

Enterprise Web hosting vendor VeriCenter, which hosts NASA's Web sites, announced that it has bolstered its infrastructure to meet the expected high viewer demand. Meanwhile, Yahoo reached a deal with NASA to provide live, free streaming video of the mission, from launch to landing, for users of Windows Media Player.

For its part, Web content provider Akamai Technologies will stream NASA TV video feeds for users of Real Networks' RealPlayer media player and will deliver all other Web content to NASA's Web sites during the mission.

"Space -- and news about space ... is incredibly popular online and always has been," said Scott Moore, vice president of content operations at Yahoo. "We believe that this, the launch and the whole mission, will have huge interest among our audience."

Yahoo will take NASA's live video feeds and send them directly to Yahoo's data center in Dallas, where the feeds will be transmitted to online viewers. The data center has arranged throughput capacity of up to 50GB/sec. to keep up with demand, Moore said. The video streams are expected to begin about one hour before Wednesday's scheduled 3:51 p.m. Eastern time launch and will continue around the clock until the shuttle lands in 12 days. This is the first shuttle mission since the Columbia mishap, which killed seven astronauts.

Online viewers will be able to watch the video feeds on a special Windows Media Player co-branded with the NASA and Yahoo logos, Moore said. "We know its of huge interest for our audience and we think we're serving the public by providing this stream for free."

William Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said in a statement that the agency is "very excited to be able to offer this expanded coverage to the public."

"Internet users will be able to follow every event from launch through landing, including the spacewalks," Readdy said. "Thanks to this agreement, they'll be able to do so at no additional cost to the taxpayers."

Gray Hall, CEO and president of Houston-based VeriCenter, said his company has been hosting NASA Web sites since December 2003, when it acquired the E-Solutions managed hosting business of telecommunications company Sprint. The Deep Impact space mission, which last week sent a probe into the surface of comet Tempel 1, brought about 80 million page views and 1 billion hits in 24 hours to NASA's Web sites, Hall said.

"By any measure, that's very high for any advanced Web site or portal on any scale," he said. "It appears the [shuttle's] 'return to flight' mission could draw that kind of activity again."

VeriCenter has seven data centers around the country to support its Web hosting operations and to ensure continuous uptime, he said.

Helping the company host the NASA sites is California based vendor eTouch Systems, which provides software that manages and distributes Web content. ETouch said its software also enables NASA to cache some of its data to reduce the immediate affect on Web servers during peak periods.

The 12-day mission is being undertaken to test new hardware and techniques to improve shuttle safety following the Columbia disaster and to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

VeriCenter also hosts Web sites for NASA headquarters, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Marshall Space Flight Center, the Glenn Research Center and the Ames Research Center.

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Todd R. Weiss

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