spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy

For The First Time In 24 Years, NASA Lost Contact With The ISS

Houston, you have a problem. Or at least you did.


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

For twenty minutes communication was lost with the ISS, and for another 70 NASA needed Russia to pass on its messages.

For twenty minutes communication was lost with the ISS, and for another 70 NASA needed Russia to pass on its messages.

Image Credit: NASA

A power failure at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston led to a loss of communication with the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday. The space agency had to use Russian communication systems to tell the astronauts what had happened, indicating the need for other redundancies if the ISS becomes a little less international, as has been announced.

It was said that Michael Collins was the most isolated person in human history as the Moon blocked his communication channels with Earth while Armstrong and Aldrin made their famous walk. The experience was repeated for each subsequent Apollo mission, 13 excepted. The astronauts on the ISS didn’t reach quite that level of disconnection before communication was restored – not only did the full radio silence last for only twenty minutes, rather than repeated rounds of 48 minutes, but the seven astronauts aboard had each other.


Nevertheless, the experience reminds us that even in low Earth orbit, half a day’s drive from the people you are flying over if cars could go straight up, it’s possible to lose touch with the rest of humanity. Millions of people would have seen the ISS passing overhead during this period, but the only ones who could send a message are those who planned to sever their connection to the station next year,  although the timing is now unclear.

NASA is adamant the interruption posed no danger to the station or its crew. The Guardian quotes ISS program Manger Joel Montalbano as saying; “It wasn’t an issue on board. That was purely a ground problem. At no time was the crew or the vehicle in any danger.”

Direct communication between Houston and the station was restored within 90 minutes using backup systems.

In one sense it’s surprising something like this hasn’t happened previously in the time since the station launched in 1998. After all, Houston has faced some extreme weather events in that time, and systems have continued to operate. 


Reflecting the value NASA places on its astronauts’ lives, an entire backup control center has been constructed outside Houston, but it was not activated this time.

“We’ll better understand what happened and then take lessons learned and move forward,” Montalbano said

NASA certainly doesn’t want to make a big thing of the event. The ISS’s social media accounts don’t mention it, nor does the main @NASA account. Only the last paragraph of the daily update on the ISS blog refers to it, adding; “It is expected that by the end of the day the issue will be resolved and the system will be back into a normal configuration.”


spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy
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