Mars find may boost IT budget

NASA's extraordinary announcement this month that primitive life may have existed on Mars could boost information technology programs at the beleaguered agency if the discovery convinces Congress and the Clinton administration to push for more funds to search for further evidence of life.

Although NASA's theory that fossils found in what is believed to be a meteorite from Mars has not been verified NASA officials and the Clinton administration are clearly exhilarated by the finding and have begun to talk about revising some of the 10 Mars missions NASA has planned into the next century and reassessing NASA's future budgets.

The changes also have implications for IT. "We're certainly anticipating - and a lot of people are thinking about - how we pursue this on a scientific level and on an IT level how we support that " said Joe Bredekamp chief of the science information systems program at NASA. "This isn't a right turn in our direction but it could focus our attention on other technologies."

President Clinton called NASA's theory "stunning" and said "The American space program will put its full intellectual power and technological prowess behind the search for further evidence of life on Mars." That statement some NASA supporters believe sets the stage for reversing the decline in future NASA budgets which are scheduled to be slashed by billions of dollars over the next several years.

NASA's IT budget when adjusted for inflation has remained relatively unchanged since 1990 hovering at about $1.5 billion according to the Electronic Industries Association. But EIA forecasts NASA's IT budget to drop 25 percent from fiscal 1996 to fiscal 2000.

An aide to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) the ranking minority member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and who has fought against NASA's recent budget cuts said Mikulski would use the discovery to call for an increase in NASA's budget. "It's accurate to say that if NASA's missions change the budget must change to accommodate those changes " Mikulski's aide said. "And that most likely means more money."

House appropriators could not reached for comment.

But increasing NASA's budget faces large obstacles. A majority staff member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA said much of the IT that supports NASA programs is outsourced and would not require a budget increase.

In addition at a meeting last week of more than a dozen Mars scientists and engineers who gathered to discuss possible revisions to future Mars missions changes in IT projects were not discussed a NASA spokesman said. But the spokesman added that it may be too early to begin discussing the technology needed to support any changes.

Possible IT Changes

But the possibility that NASA's budget could be increased or the agency's missions revised could bring about changes in IT programs that support the missions NASA officials said. If for example changes are made to look for more evidence of past life on the red planet IT programs would have to be revised as well.For example NASA may pursue the development of autonomous precision landing systems on-board IT equipment and software that searches for areas that may have supported life millions of years ago and then guides a spacecraft to land on a chosen site. "We don't have that capability yet but that is something we would look at " Bredekamp said.

In addition to search for more evidence of ancient life on Mars NASA could develop "space laboratories."This would allow more flexibility to react to intermediate results " said Richard Doyle section manager for information and computing research technologies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Systems controlling NASA's land rovers also could be affected. To search for areas that might hold signs of past life NASA may want to have the means to direct land rovers without long time delays.

Under the Mars Pathfinder mission which is scheduled for launch in December with a Mars landing next summer a rover will be deployed to conduct chemical and geological tests. NASA scientists will guide the rover a cumbersome task that will take at least 20 minutes as signals are sent from the rover to Earth and back again.

To avoid the delay NASA is working on technology that would allow the rover to search out specific areas on its own. The technology could be ready by the Mars 2005 mission which will also carry a rover."We want to tell the rover to go to a spot and have high confidence it would do it safely and reliably without having to hold its hand " Doyle said. "We've got quite a bit of research on this under our belts now.... We just need the inspiration and the right opportunity." This discovery just could be the push NASA needs to pursue the new technology.

As for manned missions to Mars NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin and administration officials are far from calling for such a costly undertaking although Goldin has not ruled it out. On NASA's Web site dedicated to Mars missions (cu-ames.arc.nasa.gov/marslife/planexpl.htm) officials list a manned mission to Mars by 2018. For that to happen however IT systems would "be pushed to their limits " Bredekamp said. The fault tolerance reliability and redundancy backup systems would be "far beyond the levels we have now for the systems we are using."

For example computer components are hardened by radiation in space. Guarding against hardening is "extremely expensive " Bredekamp said.

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