NASA's CIO boosts missions

Stunning photographs and models of various spacecraft are displayed prominently in Lee Holcomb's NASA office, a tribute to the allure of the agency's missions that have kept the new chief information officer working at headquarters for more than 20 years.

Holcomb, who was named NASA CIO in November, began his career at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) working on spacecraft propulsion— technology used to point a craft in a certain direction and keep it orbiting around planets— for the Voyager project.

Launched in 1977, the Voyager spacecraft recently set a record as the man-made object farthest from the sun. Holcomb's subsequent work at headquarters included development of the world's first massively parallel computer and design of real-time automation tools for spacecraft such as those used in space shuttle missions. Before taking on the CIO role, he also headed the agency's Information Systems and Human Factors Division and served as the NASA's point man for interagency coordination of high-performance computing.

The Voyager project has far surpassed scientists' early expectations of its abilities and has returned reams of planetary science data. For Holcomb, working on projects that make a dramatic impact on the world's knowledge of outer space has fueled his commitment to the agency.

"To pull off that mission, to see it launched, to move on in your career and suddenly see science unfold in a project you started 10 years earlier— I couldn't go anywhere else and do that," he said. "To do something that has general value to the public from a scientific standpoint is very attractive."

While NASA employees such as Holcomb have long been entranced by the agency's overall mission and the profound implications of its work, the nation was captivated by the 1997 Mars Pathfinder project, which many people followed via the Internet. Although NASA launched a series of Internet-based projects as far back as 1993, the power of the network to bring widespread public attention to NASA missions last year brought a new sense of pride and energy to agency employees, Holcomb said.

"For many folks at all levels of management, the great success of Pathfinder really made them think twice about the value of the Internet," he said. "It's gone past us; it's surpassed our dreams.

"We, as an agency, believe we have a role in helping to maintain scientific literacy so the public understands what NASA is trying to do. It's important that the public good comes with the [World Wide] Web and that the Web doesn't become just a way to make money. Our goal is to have people use the Web as they used public TV in the 1930s."

While NASA may have more stunning Internet images to offer the public than some other agencies, Holcomb finds himself facing many of the same priorities as other federal CIOs. At the top of his list is the Year 2000 problem, which garnered NASA a "D-minus" grade for system conversion at the time Holcomb accepted his new post. But Holcomb said the agency is now in full compliance with new Office of Management and Budget schedules, which require all date-converted systems to be up and running by March 1999.

Security is Holcomb's second priority, and launching the agency's financial systems consolidation project rounds out his top three priorities.

In addition to tackling these daunting tasks, NASA's massive desktop outsourcing project and a JPL network services outsourcing project are both considered by many in the federal information technology arena to be pioneering efforts. The Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA (ODIN), which is expected to be awarded this summer, could be worth as much as $5 billion.

"We'd like to get out of the property-management business to the extent that we can," he said of ODIN. "It can promote technology refreshment and the ability to stay current. We did our homework. We think it's going to be very good for the agency."

To plan the requirement, NASA officials talked to CIOs in the private sector and developed a business case, Holcomb said. Culling the insight of others to formulate policy is one of Holcomb's principle management philosophies, he said.

"It's important to analyze and understand the broader impacts of an activity," he said. "I believe one key to success is to use the talented people that you have and provide an open environment for them to give you their viewpoints. [With] an autocratic approach, you can make decisions quickly, but they may not be the right decisions."

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