[meteorite-list] The Day The Internet Stood Still
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Fri, 7 Jul 2017 16:33:48 -0700 (PDT)
The Day The Internet Stood Still
By Brian Dunbar
Twenty years ago, NASA landed a little rover on Mars . . . and blew up
the Internet. As people clamored for pictures - overwhelming servers
and bringing network traffic to a standstill - it became obvious
that something fundamental had changed on how people expected to get information
about NASA missions.
NASA, through its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, had begun to
release information online following Voyager's encounters with Uranus
and Neptune in the 1980s.
"When I arrived at JPL in 1985, I was already active in some of the
online networks of the day such as CompuServe, so distributing pictures
and information about NASA missions that way seemed natural," said
former JPL public information manager Frank O'Donnell. "Also,
Ron Baalke at JPL was very active posting information to Usenet, the Internet-based
system of newsgroups. At the end of the '80s, I established a dialup bulletin
board system at JPL, which members of the public could dial into directly
to download pictures and text files."
Then, in 1993, came the discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and astronomers'
realization that it would hit Jupiter in July 1994. By then scientists
were communicating by e-mail, transferring large files around the world
and posting their work for discussion on the nascent World Wide Web. Now
they were using those tools to plan worldwide campaign to observe the
NASA's public affairs office followed suit, scheduling briefings
throughout the encounter. (The comet had fragmented into numerous pieces
that would arrive at Jupiter over several days.) The schedule published
the time images were expected to be received and when they would be discussed
on NASA TV.
Naturally, Internet users started banging on NASA websites a few minutes
before the pictures were scheduled to be downlinked, unable to wait until
the scheduled release time. As Philip C. Plait wrote in "Bad Astronomy",
". . . the web nearly screeched to a halt due to the overwhelming
amount of traffic as people tried to find pictures of the event from different
The excitement wasn't limited to the public. Scientists found themselves
doing their work live on NASA TV, as this clip from a National Geographic
special shows. By coincidence it was also around this time that NASA's
Office of Public Affairs announced that it would no longer mail news releases
to reporters, but would instead distribute them online.
Shoemaker-Levy made it clear to JPL they would have to prepare for something
even bigger with Mars Pathfinder. Webmaster David Dubov told the New York
Times shortly after the landing that he estimated the site would be receiving
25 million hits a day. (A "hit" is a request for information
from one computer to another. On the web, a hit can represent the transfer
of a picture, text or other page element. In the case of Pathfinder's
deliberately stripped-down site, each web page comprised a few hits.)
Dubov and JPL engineer Kirk Goodall would later revise that estimate to
60-80 million hits a day, traffic that would crash JPL's networks
if the servers were hosted there. Goodall set out to build a network of
mirror sites that could take the traffic off JPL's networks. Working
with other U.S. science agencies, and ultimately corporations and Internet
"backbone" providers, he did just that. (In other words, JPL
crowd-sourced their solution a couple of decades before anyone knew crowdsourcing
was a thing.)
And the solution worked. The site took 30 million hits on landing day,
July 4. On July 7, the first weekday after the landing, the site got 80
million hits. In comparison, the year before, the chess match between
Gary Kasparov and IBM's Deep Blue computer peaked at 21 million hits,
and the Atlanta Olympics website had topped out at 18 million hits on
"One of the biggest changes with Mars Pathfinder was that it was
the first mission that fully embraced the Internet as a primary way of
getting out information to the public," said O'Donnell. "Before
Pathfinder, the prevailing thinking was that eight-by-ten photo prints
were the product needed for the public at large."
It's worth remembering how the public got to see NASA images before
the Internet era. NASA teams would review the raw images, select a few
and distribute them as physical prints at news conferences. Media had
to be in attendance at the conference to get a copy. Most newspapers and
TV stations had to wait until a wire service had scanned the image and
sent it out over their proprietary network.
Most people might see a new image every day for a few days. A week later
there might be a few more images published in weekly news magazines. Maybe
six or eight months later, a magazine like National Geographic might publish
a long story with a dozen or more additional images. Most people never
saw more than a handful of pictures from NASA missions.
The Pathfinder team had to take "photo prints and scan them in order
to post digital files online," said O'Donnell. "Pathfinder's
teams committed to releasing direct-to-digital files very quickly."
"And the public loved it." he added.
"I remember sitting at my desk clicking on picture after picture,"
said Bob Jacobs, now NASA's deputy associate administrator for communications,
but then with the Associated Press. "I could see so much more from
this mission than it ever had before, and I came back day after day."
Not everyone was happy. IT staffs around the world found themselves dealing
with unprecedented amounts of traffic on their local networks, sometimes
to the breaking point. In France, where the same networks were carrying
telephone and Internet traffic, the government took the unprecedented
step of asking people not visit the websites, since it was affecting phone
service. At NASA Headquarters, which had an indirect Internet connection
through a NASA center handled traffic to its web servers through the same
"pipe" as business services, saw very slow performance for e-mail
and other business operations on July 7.
Mars Pathfinder changed forever how the public expected to get information
on NASA missions, and on any other live event. Instead of waiting for
news reports, the public expected to join in as the event happened and
see results in real time. By the time NASA's next rovers, Spirit
and Opportunity, landed on Mars in 2004, NASA had moved its web infrastructure
to into a commercial data center and added a commercial caching network.
The change allowed NASA to handle even more traffic, 109 million hits
in 24 hours, including having 50,000 people watching NASA TV's coverage
of the landings via webcast.
NASA online offerings continue to evolve. Now nearing the end of its mission,
Cassini has been sending back raw images from Saturn and its moons since
2005, and they have been made immediately available to the public. NASA's
Mars missions have similar sites. The Hubble Space Telescope has made
thousands of images available online. With the advent of social media,
people can share and talk about images immediately.
It isn't just pictures that are available immediately. When the Mars
Science Laboratory landed on Mars in 2012, more than 1.2 million people
watched NASA TV's coverage live over the Internet. For February's
announcement of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets, more than a million people
watched the press conference, and there were more than 500,000 social
media mentions from outside NASA. We're expecting similar numbers,
if not more, for the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.
Social media has become the new communications frontier for NASA. When
the Mars Phoenix lander arrived at the Red Planet, JPL's public affairs
team took to Twitter and started posting updates in the voice of the spacecraft.
"We created the account, known as Mars Phoenix, last May with the goal
of providing the public with near real-time updates on the mission," Veronica
McGregor, manager of the JPL news office and originator of the updates,
said in 2009. "The response was incredible. Very quickly it became a way
not only to deliver news of the mission, but to interact with the public
and respond to their questions about space exploration."
The excitement of space exploration is now available more quickly to more
people more directly than it ever has been, and that trend seems only
like to accelerate. For the solar eclipse, NASA will deploy television
cameras, scientists and communicators across the United States, allowing
anyone around the world to participate. For an agency with the mission
to make the results of its missions known "to the widest extent practicable"
-- as required by the law that created NASA -- these are very exciting
times. Who knows? Maybe one day we can make the Internet stand still again.
Received on Fri 07 Jul 2017 07:33:48 PM PDT