Computer hackers broke into NASA's worldwide data network throughout the summer and gathered secret information on space shuttle projects and rocket failures, West German media said Tuesday.
News reports said that an unspecified number of young West Germans gained regular access to at least 20 computers of the U.S. space agency and had the ability to paralyze the entire network. The ARD television network said that a flaw in the network's security system allowed the hackers to enter the network from May to September.
Hackers are computer enthusiasts who often try to break into private computer systems for the challenge or for criminal gain.
The NASA system connects more than 1,600 computers worldwide that share information on space research, nuclear physics and molecular biology, ARD reported Tuesday. The network includes nuclear research facilities in Los Alamos, N.M.
In Washington, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said in a statement that the tapped network provides only unclassified information to university and industry researchers.
"When I saw 'Welcome to the NASA headquarters . . . installation' on my screen, I was a little shocked, to say the least," the magazine Stern, in an advance text released Tuesday, quoted one youth as saying.
The Hamburg-based "Chaos Computer Club" said in a statement to news media Tuesday that the youths turned to the club for help when they realized the enormity of their discovery.
The statement said the hackers penetrated the network to show the "unbelievable weaknesses" of the security system and had no interest in the secret data.
The magazine, quoting one youth's records of computer transactions, said the hackers were able to paralyze the entire network.
In one of the most serious security breaches, the hackers obtained NASA information on space shuttle projects, computer security studies and rocket boosters, the television network said.
In addition to the NASA computers, the hackers gained access to computers at some of Europe's most sophisticated research institutions.
They described a step-by-step process of gaining more and more access to the network's computers until they achieved "unlimited access" to all data banks and the ability to "manipulate at will" all information stored there, according to ARD.
So far, no charges have been filed in the case.