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Even in space, you can't escape e-mail's risk

The Baltimore Sun

With e-mails, more get caught by a click

In space, the saying goes, no one can hear you scream. But e-mail your orbiting boyfriend, threatening to rip his clothes off as soon as he re-enters Earth's atmosphere? Oh, you bet that'll be heard throughout the galaxy.

Inevitably, e-mails have surfaced in the astronaut love triangle case: Specifically, some rather breathless ones - "*pant, pant,*" "*gasp, gasp*" and even "*MUAH*" figures into the lusty lexicon employed by these particularly long-distance lovers, Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman and her astronaut beau, Bill Oefelein, who, during the time at least one of the e-mails was written, was piloting the space shuttle Discovery.

Unfortunately, the e-mails - released this week by Florida prosecutors - were discovered by Lisa Nowak, the third point of this high-flying triangle. She's Oefelein's former girlfriend, and now former astronaut as well, and this particular discovery perhaps prompted her to embark on her now infamous 1,000-mile, diaper-assisted journey to confront Shipman. Nowak is charged with attempted kidnapping.

Which just goes to show, once again, that e-mails are nothing but trouble.

Do we need any more proof that the road to public humiliation almost always involves a side trip down e-mail lane?

Let's see, there was the Enron example - the e-mails that revealed company staffers manipulating markets when they weren't spreading dirty jokes. Then there was Monica Lewinsky, whose e-blabbing about her affair with President Clinton would help lead to his impeachment. And most recently, our own fired U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, who now says he was fired two years ago for political reasons, but whose former boss instead points to e-mails he wrote his staff - but which ended up in The Sun - demanding that they come up with "Three 'Front Page' White Collar/Public Corruption Indictments" by the November elections.

Somehow, e-mail has become the new smoking gun, the dirty laundry of our times, the quickest way to public mortification.

And now, it turns out, you're not even safe from the long tentacles of e-mail when you're in space.

My first thought after seeing the news accounts about the astronaut e-mails was, astronauts have e-mail access in space? Yes, and even these rocket scientists are not immune from e-mail annoyances, they just have better excuses for not responding right away: "I just [got] this e-mail today," Oefelein wrote Shipman. "We put away the radar that gave us the ability to receive e-mails about a day and a half before landing ... "

(Not all of Oefelein's cosmic conversations were with Shipman - he was also the designated blogger on his shuttle flight this December. "Space is fun! I quickly adapted to the zero gravity and have had no problems eating or sleeping," he wrote in a blog in which he also answered questions from schoolchildren. "It's fun to eat 'upside down' and sleep on the ceiling.")

Like most people, I suspect, I love and loathe e-mail, with the needle ever wavering between those two emotions, mainly depending on the contents of that day's inbox. It's convenient and fast and fun - until it's not. Who hasn't sent an errant missive - my favorite: wanting to say something nasty about A to B, but somehow sending the e-mail to A - or accidentally hit that most dangerous option on the screen, "reply to all."

But the idea of astronauts dealing with e-mail while they're rocketing around the galaxy is surreal. Do they have to wade through all the spam like we do here on Earth? Have the Nigerian bank account scammers gotten through to them? What about those e-mails written in Greek that I've been getting lately?

E-mail has literally become too much of a good thing. You've seen those studies about how we're drowning in spam - it comprises 91 percent of all e-mail traffic, a filtering company found last year. A University of Maryland study found that the time wasted deleting junk e-mail cost American businesses nearly $22 billion a year.

And, as learned by those whose e-mails have come back to haunt them, hitting delete doesn't even make them go away - any number of investigators have managed to retrieve deleted e-mails off of a computer's hard drives.

And in the case of the astronauts, it didn't even take that level of forensics: Apparently, Oefelein had given Nowak a key to his apartment as well as his computer password while they were together - and failed to change either when the relationship ended.

So I guess the morale of the story is: Love may be fleeting, but e-mail is forever.

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