Wolfram Computation Meets Knowledge

Wolfram Archive

A Customer Service Call from Mir

Published November 12, 1997

When the space station Mir’s troubles were at their worst, you may have asked yourself, “Why don’t they just call the Mir customer service hotline?” For one minor problem in the aftermath of the space collision, NASA did indeed call customer service, and they got fast results.

The Mir space station consists of several modules flown into space individually and connected together in orbit. One of these modules, Spektr, contained instruments for observing Earth and served as living quarters for American astronauts. In June 1997 its occupant was Dr. Michael Foale, who shared Mir with Russian cosmonauts Vasily Tsibliyev and Alexander Lazutkin. On June 25 the Spektr module was damaged when it collided with an unmanned supply vessel during testing of a new automated guidance system. The station depressurized and lost power, and the Spektr module was hurriedly sealed off–along with most of Foale’s personal belongings–to prevent depressurization of the rest of Mir.

Loaded onto Foale’s now-inaccessible computer was an off-the-shelf technical computing software system called Mathematica, which Foale has used for many years to perform calculations involving higher math. Thinking that Mathematica could shed some light on some of the tasks necessary to set Mir back in order, he asked that a backup of his hard drive be retrieved from his home and sent up to Mir on the next supply rocket. Installation onto the new computer, however, required a new password–and that meant a quick phone call to Wolfram Research, Inc., makers of Mathematica. The NASA ground crew contacted Allison Fry, a Customer Service representative at Wolfram Research, and Mathematica was soon up and running again in orbit.

Back on Earth, Foale recently contacted Wolfram Research for a replacement CD for the one lost in Spektr, which this time was delivered to him without the use of a supply rocket. As for the rest of Mir’s difficulties, perhaps the current crew wishes that more solutions were only a phone call away.