A BBC documentary to be aired tonight will provide evidence that a computer hacker put the lives of space shuttle astronauts at risk by mounting a denial of service attack on Nasa's communications systems.
While the shuttle docked with the Russian space station Mir, the activities of a hacker interfered with computer systems that monitor the heartbeat, pulse and medical condition of astronauts aboard the spacecraft.
"We had an activity at Nasa centre where a hacker was overloading our systems... to such an extent that it interfered with communications between the Nasa centre, some medical communications and the astronauts aboard the shuttle," Roberta Gross, inspector general at Nasa, told the BBC's Panorama programme.
The problem, which occurred during a critical stage of the 1997 mission, was so severe that Nasa was forced to switch systems and talk to the astronauts via the Russian station.
Gross said Nasa has numerous fail-safe measures to ensure communications but the incident showed "the potential hackers have for doing some real damage to Nasa's mission and astronaut safety".
Neil Barrett, technical director at security consultant Information Risk Management, said he was surprised that Nasa did not use a private network for such vital traffic.
"This seems like a denial of service attack. What seems to have happened is that someone was beating the hell out of the external router, so much that the medical data couldn't get through," said Barrett.
Nasa's revelations give an indication of the scale of the hacker problem, which is explored in Panorama's documentary, Cyber Attack. The programme is premiered tonight on BBC1 at 10pm. In the past year alone, Nasa has experienced more than 500,000 cyber attacks, according to the documentary.
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