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NASA chief says computers are secure despite thefts

By Mark K. Matthews, The Orlando Sentinel –

WASHINGTON — NASA Chief Charles Bolden tried to reassure Congress on Wednesday that the space agency’s computers are secure after reports that a laptop with command codes to the International Space Station was stolen a year ago.

Bolden told lawmakers that the missing computer could not be used to take command of the station and that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has safeguards in place to prevent outside forces from co-opting the $100 billion orbiting facility.

“In the unlikely event someone ended up with a laptop that had critical commands for the International Space Station … they would still have to get through another set of firewalls at the Johnson Space Center,” Bolden told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

But the NASA chief was vague about what his agency planned to do to prevent a repeat incident — or something worse.

At a congressional hearing last week, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, the agency’s independent watchdog, cited the stolen laptop as emblematic of a larger problem.

That computer, which Martin said contained “algorithms used to command and control” the station, was just one of 48 NASA portable devices lost or stolen between April 2009 and April 2011.

Furthermore, it was not encrypted for security. According to Martin, only 1 percent of NASA’s portable devices are encrypted, compared to 54 percent of such devices government-wide.

“Why is NASA is so far behind the rest of the government in securing data on personal devices?” asked U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Bolden had no immediate answer but said the agency was taking steps to address the encryption problem — and was telling employees to be more careful.

“One of the things that I’m doing is emphasizing to our employees is that they have to be vigilant. They can’t leave a laptop … on the front seat of the car. Locking the car with a NASA laptop (inside) is not sufficient security,” he said.

The computer safety issue, however, took a backseat to a broader discussion of NASA’s proposed 2013 budget of $17.7 billion. In what is becoming a perennial fight, Bolden again battled with lawmakers over funding for NASA’s human spaceflight program.

The proposed White House budget would spend nearly $2.8 billion to continue development of a new “heavy lift” rocket, crew capsule and ground system that aims to fly a crewed mission by 2021. The ultimate aim of the Space Launch System (SLS) program is to enable future missions to the moon or asteroids, although an exact destination remains undecided.

Lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, want NASA to spend more on that project and less on efforts to help commercial companies build rockets that can fly astronauts to the space station.

“I like commercial, but not at the expense of SLS,” Hutchison said. “We can’t fudge our future that way.”

NASA has budgeted about $830 million in 2013 to help build space taxis — the minimum, Bolden said, for NASA to have a chance of meeting its goal of station flights by 2017.

Since the space shuttle was retired last year, NASA pays Russia about $450 million a year to ferry its astronauts to the station. Bolden said he would rather spend that money with U.S. companies.

“I need to get American crews to station on American vehicles,” Bolden said.

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