NASA teleconferencing system to hasten spacecraft design

NASA has chosen a small arsenal of commercial products to create a new agencywide teleconferencing system that should help the agency design spacecraft more quickly and inexpensively.

The system— a loose configuration of more than a dozen hardware and software products— will offer an alternative to interagency teleconferences staged in large rooms that must be reserved weeks in advance. New clusters of teleconferencing equipment now being deployed will allow engineers to hold teleconferences with little lead time and in small conference rooms— even via desktop computers.

Moreover, engineers will be able to use the equipment to collaborate on projects in real time, sharing data and viewing immediate changes to documents, such as space shuttle drawings, or to computer programs.

Edward Chow, technical group supervisor of the Network Technology Development Group at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said last week that NASA will finish rolling out the new teleconferencing design to its 10 centers within the next three to five months. Most centers have the equipment in place.

The array of products includes cameras, speakerphones, hardware and software items from PictureTel Corp., VTEL Corp. and several other vendors.

The product list also includes Microsoft Corp.'s NetMeeting, which allows researchers and engineers at two NASA centers to collaborate on designs and other documents using an electronic whiteboard.

The new approach to conferencing comes after more than two years of NASA budget cuts. "We do not have the resources within each center to do full [spacecraft or project] design," Chow said. "We have to cooperate with the other NASA centers that have the expertise."

By infusing more teleconferencing technology into NASA centers, agency officials avoid hiring more experts than they need in any one field. Instead, one expert can share his expertise with engineers at many NASA centers by using the teleconferencing system.

The more robust teleconferencing equipment also eliminates the need for NASA experts to travel among centers as much as they have in the past, Chow said. "This ends up saving us a lot of money," said Chow, who was unable to say how much NASA has spent on new teleconferencing equipment so far. He said individual NASA centers were purchasing the equipment on their own, and a PictureTel representative said many of the teleconferencing buys were coming via the General Services Administration schedule.

The pieces of the new teleconferencing configuration have been coming together over the past year or so, said Chow, who framed the new approach as one that supports the "better, cheaper, faster" mentality that top NASA management has promoted. For example, more availability to videoconferencing and dataconferencing equipment will allow NASA engineers to design spacecraft more quickly, there-by speeding up the pace of space exploration, Chow said.

A goal is to use more teleconferencing to shrink the design cycle of space vehicles to one year. In the past, it has taken as many as 10 years to design space vehicles, Chow said. Engineers already are using the new teleconferencing arrangement to collaborate on the design of spacecraft for the "Mars 01" mission, which will blast off early in the next century.

Most of the information— voice, video and data— is shared through a dedicated network of Integrated Services Digital Network lines. Information is also being shared through a wide-area network, Chow said.

Craig Keilman, senior account manager with PictureTel's Federal Division, described the information sharing as videoconferencing running in parallel with dataconferencing. Although there are really two types of conferencing going on at the same time, the two functions are coordinated by software on a single PC or workstation, making the process more seamless, he said. "Everything is all married so that when you're in a video call, everything is natural," he said.


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