Does email work in space? How astronauts send emails

When humans first landed on the moon almost 53 years ago, email had not even been invented. Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since 1969, however, and now astronauts have more options for keeping in touch with their colleagues and family back on Earth.
Today, the history of sending emails to and from space.
Child in astronaut costume stands on roof next to cardboard spaceship
Want to make contact with space? The ISS can receive emails!

First email from space

Email has been around since 1971, but it took 20 years for the first email to be sent from space. It was transmitted from the space shuttle Atlantis by Shannon Lucid and James C. Adamson on August 28, 1991. To be precise, the two NASA astronauts sent the message via AppleLink, an online service created by Apple for communicating with its dealers and partners. But this is considered close enough to an email for the event to have been memorialized in the Guinness Book of World Records. The message was sent as part of a series of experiments studying microgravity and computer controls. According to an Apple project manager, there were two failed connections before the email could be sent – something those of us who can remember the dial-up modems of the early 1990s can probably relate to!
 
The first email from space, sent in August 1991:

 “Hello Earth! Greetings from the STS-43 Crew. This is the first AppleLink from space. Having a GREAT time, wish you were here,...send cryo and RCS! Hasta la vista, baby,...we'll be back!”

Emails from the space shuttle

As email became a more widespread form of communication, astronauts on the space shuttle were able to check their work and personal emails as well. When the space shuttles were flying a mission, NASA exchanged data files with the crew via satellite. This didn’t work 24/7, but only when there was an unobstructed path between the antenna on the space shuttle and the satellite being used by NASA mission control. This meant that the astronauts only had several half-hour windows per day to send and receive emails. Aside from the time limitations, their process for checking their mails was pretty much like remote workers today – open Outlook on their laptops and start typing. Plus they didn’t have to worry about spam: Astronauts got special NASA email addresses to use on their shuttle mission and only people on their special VIP list of approved addresses could communicate with them.

Emails on the ISS

NASA first provided astronauts on the International Space Station with access to the Web in 2010. Here again the connection is via satellite link – this time to a ground computer in Houston. Not only can the astronauts browse the Web, but also hold video conferences. And also check their emails: NASA astronauts are issued a nasa.gov email address for use on their ISS missions. Keep in mind that the ISS crew’s Web access shares the regular communications links used by the station, and is limited to times where the space station is actively communicating with the ground station.  So if the ISS is passing from one satellite coverage zone to another, for example, there may be gaps of around 15 minutes with no internet access.

Email is not just a fun way for astronauts on the ISS to keep in touch with family and friends at home, however. In 2014, the media reported the first case of email being used to transfer needed equipment to the station. When a specific kind of wrench was needed, instead of waiting for months to send it on the next supply flight, engineers on the ground designed and emailed instructions to fabricate the item on the station’s 3D printer. Email – faster than rockets!

Astronauts on social media

Even though you may not have the privilege of being on an astronaut’s list of trusted email senders, there are other ways to contact an astronaut. It’s possible to follow and interact with many astronauts (on- or off planet) on social media. The ISS’s 2010 Web upgrade was also the occasion of the first direct Twitter tweet from orbit (previous tweets had been emailed to the ground and then posted). For the latest updates from orbit you can visit the NASA astronauts at http://twitter.com/NASA_Astronauts. And many active astronauts also include their social media information on their NASA biography page.

Pro tip: NASA email alerts

Anyone with a deep interest in space travel can sign up to receive email alerts whenever there is a good opportunity to spot the International Space
Station from their location. Just go to NASA’s Spot the Station page to sign up!

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Images: 1&1/Shutterstock
 

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