IT extends NASA vision

Information technology has a stake in NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's new vision for the space agency.

The mission "is science-driven and ...will be carried out in a new commitment to fiscal responsibility and wide use of our assets, and with the synergy that comes from working with other government agencies, industry and academia," O'Keefe said in a speech delivered April 12 at Syracuse University in New York.

O'Keefe has set three main goals: understanding and protecting Earth, exploring the universe and searching for life, and inspiring the next generation of space explorers.

"I think embedded in this whole mission is the recognition that NASA must operate in a virtual environment," Lee Holcomb, chief information officer of NASA, said in a recent interview. "Both here on Earth and in space, we're going to reach out to people in a virtual IT fashion."

Although the announcement of plans to send a teacher to the international space station overshadowed his speech, O'Keefe's call for collaboration has IT implications.

The call is "a fairly profound statement," Holcomb said. "It's done within a program, but this says we are going to transcend programs and work across the agency." Integration will be built on IT, he added.

NASA is looking, in large part, to its integrated financial system — currently in its deployment stages — to achieve synergy. The program marks a departure from a previous culture in which the agency's 10 centers operated decentralized systems.

NASA also wants to increase teamwork externally. "Protection of our home planet includes sharing NASA's unique technology and imagery with other government agencies, academia and industry," O'Keefe said. "It is not a technology leap to design systems that preclude the use of commercial aircraft as weapons."

Most of the remote sensing data NASA collects is digital, allowing it to exchange data electronically, Holcomb said.

The agency will "help collect the data the president has called for to frame the policy choices we must consider to meet the challenges of climate change and establish responsible international environmental standards," O'Keefe said.

NASA also will use its technology to investigate the universe and search for life, first with robotic trailblazers and eventually humans, O'Keefe said.

"NASA must eliminate the stovepipes and build an integrated strategy that links human space flight and robotic space flight in a stepping stone approach to exploration and discovery," he said.

New types of IT will allow the agency to use robots in hostile environments, Holcomb said, adding, "Autonomy and smart science push IT really hard."

To get the next generation of explorers interested in science and engineering, NASA will also renew its focus on education.

"We're also looking at integration in [that] area, linking disparate systems," Holcomb said. "We embed education in pretty much any program."

The agency is working to frame an education e-government initiative with the Education Department and the National Science Foundation that would be available on the FirstGov Web portal, he said.

"I applaud [O'Keefe's] emphasis on science as the driver of NASA's mission, and his focus on education as a central task," said House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.).

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