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Video at NASA Takes Off

Growth fuels improvements in distribution, technology

In the Cold War race to space that started in the 1950s, there were just two competitors: the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Soviets were secretive and hid important details about the country’s space effort, so President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided that the U.S. effort would be out in front for the entire world to see.

Karl Bennett, a program manager with ITI, monitors a rocket engine test in NASA’s master control room. by Bob Kovacs

From the very beginning of its existence as an agency, NASA has been obligated to do its work in public, leading to an intense scrutiny that arguably helped lead to its most spectacular successes. Sadly, but equally as captivating, it also gave the world a front-row seat to the agency’s most devastating failures.

This requirement to publicize its activities—good and bad—differentiates NASA from most other federal agencies.


“Communicating to the public was built into the 1958 Space Act,” said Bob Jacobs, deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Public Affairs for NASA. “I think that’s a core cultural approach to what we do.”

Until 1981, that public communication mandate was generally met by giving access to the news media. But in 1981, NASA started its own television operation, NASA TV, concurrent with the launch of the first Space Shuttle mission (STS-1).

The analog NTSC operation used a single satellite transponder and consisted of one channel that was active during a mission or high-profile test procedure. Amazingly, NASA TV continued to operate on one standard-definition analog transponder until July 2005.

Since then, things have moved swiftly. NASA TV now has five video streams, all of them digital and most can function in either HD or SD. NASA’s HD channel officially launched on July 19, 2010.

Getting there had its frustrations, but also its advantages.

“By the time we get to implement a technology change, we’re often three years behind the industry,” Jacobs said. “However, when we finally upgraded to HD, the cost was one-fourth of what it was in 2005.”

This latest buildout at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., took about eight months and cost $2.4 million. The integrator was Innovative Technologies Inc. (ITI) from Chantilly, Va.

The new system created a distribution hub in the headquarters building, where signals flow in from NASA’s 11 widely distributed test and research centers. Once at the hub, signals can be switched to any of the five channels to be distributed back to NASA facilities, as well as made available to broadcast and cable networks.

The new facilities at NASA’s headquarters include a master control room, an ingest/distribution hub and racks of servers to record and playback video. Much of the system is now HD, but SD will continue to be used for some time.

In addition to providing video for news organizations and its own employees, NASA has discovered the power of the Internet’s social sites. NASA regularly produces and uploads programming to YouTube for viewing by a worldwide audience.

“During the height of the Hubble [Space Telescope] repair mission, we were the number-one channel on YouTube,” Jacobs said.

In mid-August, the top video on YouTube was an episode in a regular series called “Behind the Scenes,” by NASA astronaut Mike Massimino. This particular episode was on how to contain and clean up vomit inside a spacecraft. Really.

Back in the master control room in NASA’s headquarters, the staff prepared for a test of a rocket engine at a contractor’s facility in Utah. The test goes off without a hitch and the spectacular video is sent across NASA’s internal network, as well as made available to the news media.

The control room is fitted with two Miranda nVision NV5100MC master control switchers, both with DekoCast character generators, and a wall of Panasonic monitors. The equipment room hums with several Grass Valley K2 HD servers (with 300 hours of storage), a Miranda nVision NV8144 routing switcher and Sundance automation for playout control. To maintain proper signal levels, the master control room uses Harris Videotek waveform/vectorscopes.

The Technical Operations Center is the point where NASA receives and transmits signals. The point at which signals enter the facility and are distributed to their ultimate destinations is the Technical Operations Center (TOC), and it uses a Tektronix MTM400A transport stream monitor for QC, as well as several AJA FS1 universal signal converters. In fact, AJA FS1s are liberally sprinkled throughout the facility, testament to the current requirements that all manner of analog, digital, HD and SD signals need to be processed, switched, recorded and distributed.


Part of the new system includes a small studio, a nearby auditorium and a production control room. The heart of production control is a Ross Synergy 2 HD switcher, which can control two server channels for rolling video into programs.

NASA is known for careful research and testing before it approves a system for regular use. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that engineers at the headquarters television center are researching 3D television. In fact, the HD infrastructure that has already been built out is compatible with current 3D standards, and NASA is testing how it can use 3D cameras.

“We’re already working with 3D HD,” Jacobs said. “We bought cameras, are testing them and are discussing flying a 3D camera on the last shuttle mission.”

For long-timers at NASA, the wind-down of the Space Shuttle must have the bitter-sweet feel of the Apollo moon landing project. It was a smashing success, but not without its terrible losses and highly public failures.

It was a while coming, but NASA’s television team is finally in the 21st century and looking for ways to best show off the agency’s world-class technology and operations.