"If I were 30 again, I’d be working on interplanetary stuff" — so quotes Vint Cerf, one of the godfathers of the Internet as reported on our sister site silicon.com. As it happens, he’s 62 — and working on interplanetary stuff.
I know exactly what he means. NASA is doing a great job of sending robots out to the four corners of the solar system and they return enormous and growing amounts of data. Transferring and managing that data is a huge and expensive task, and the creation of a proper set of open standards would help here as much as it has done for, say, banking. Only banking's nowhere near as exciting as real space science — and wouldn’t it be great if NASA could spend more on that than the business of flying rickety lumps of metal with people in.
At a conference recently, I met someone from Cisco who was indeed 'working on interplanetary stuff' — well, was running an experimental router in orbit. That’s very different from talking to Mars, of course, as the round-trip light speed delay to orbit is of the order of a few hundred milliseconds at worst. That’s the sort of latency that TCP/IP can deal with without breaking into a sweat: it’s very different if you’ve got communications over light minutes or longer.
"So," I asked him, "What’s special about running a router on a satellite?" I know that you have to make radiation-hardened circuitry that can cope with much greater variations in temperature and air pressure, and the software may have to expect a greater error rate due to cosmic rays and other nasties smashing through electronic devices, and it’s not easy to get up there and re-seat a dodgy connection, but apart from that I couldn’t see why conditions in space would make much of a difference.
"Um," he said. "Well. Not much. It was exciting for a while, but then you realise it’s just a router." I detected a certain world-weary — or otherworld-weary — ennui, and a wish to be getting on with establishing links to trans-Plutonian probes busy sniffing away at the heliopause.
Couldn’t agree more. Best of luck to the Shuttle crew up there reviewing their videos, and it sure looks fun bumbling around the space station, but nothing stirs my blood more than the thought of the Voyagers hurtling through interstellar night. Make a change from the foul summer weather in London, anyhow.