When NASA Got WANKed

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In 1989, NASA fell victim to one of the first computer worms of all time. For five weeks beginning on October 16th, thousands of computers were accessed by a malicious code that caused monitors to display the below message. The worm also informed startled users that their files were being deleted (without actually doing so) and changed their account passwords so they would be locked out of their systems.

The WANK worm, as it called itself, was an apparent attempt to cause mayhem in advance of the launch of the Galileo spacecraft, slated to study Jupiter and its moons. At the time, Galileo elicited controversy for being a nuclear-powered satellite. In a world slowly emerging from the Cold War, anxiety over nuclear weapons was commonplace. Moreover, a little under four years after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, critics expressed unfounded concerns that a launch explosion could spread radioactive fallout across Florida.

WANK started at NASA, but it didn't stay at the space agency. Workers at the Department of Energy in the U.S., CERN in Switzerland, and RIKEN in Japan soon found their computers "WANKed" as well.

The worm was followed by a slightly more sophisticated bug known as OILZ, which wreaked similar mischief. Both WANK and OILZ were eventually quelled with immunization scripts distributed by IT staff. They ended up costing an estimated $500,000 in wasted time, but did not actually succeed in halting their intended target – the Galileo spacecraft launched on October 18th and would spend eight eventful years in the Jovian system before crashing into the gas giant in 2003.

Eight months after the hack, the apparent culprits, 18-year-old Nahshon Even-Chaim and 20-year-old Richard Jones, hackers known respectively as Phoenix and Electron, were apprehended in Australia. Making their arrest easier was the fact that one of them actually called the New York Times to brag about their hacking exploits. The duo later pleaded guilty to the crime along with a number of other hacks and were sentenced to hundreds of hours of community service. Their trial was the first major Australian trial for computer crimes.

It later came to light that Phoenix and Electron's hacking was less malevolent and more mischievous, performed for pranking rather than politics. As science journalist Joel Werner summed up for the podcast Science VS, the WANK worm affair could essentially be attributed to a couple of tech-savvy, bored teenagers in suburban Australia. Rather than throw rocks at abandoned buildings, they broke into NASA, he said.

NASA has been hacked on other occasions over its storied history. In 2000, a fifteen-year-old accessed thirteen computers at the Marshall Space Flight Center and downloaded $1.7 million worth of NASA proprietary software related to the International Space Station. Between February 2001 and March 2002, British hacker Gary McKinnon penetrated NASA computers searching for evidence that the space agency was covering up free energy technologies and UFO activity.

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