NASA tech chief defines new mission

NASA's acting chief information officer plans a dramatic overhaul of the space agency's computer architecture that will create a single agencywide system that is highly secure, tightly controlled and far more responsive than the multiple systems the agency uses today.

Sixteen days after assuming CIO duties, Paul Strassmann described a computer architecture managed by two highly secure "mission control centers" so well wired that they "will know when anybody twitches on the network."

In Strassmann's vision, NASA employees will need high-security smart cards to access their office buildings and their computers.

The space agency will create an "information systems services utility" that delivers "end-to-end computing services all the way down, not only to the desktop, but also to the keystroke," Strassmann said during a meeting with reporters Aug. 2.

"NASA has bought [into] the fundamental premise that the network is the computer and the computers are just peripherals," Strassmann said. The concept represents "a major reorientation of NASA to look at 21st century computing."

Strassmann said his plans would deliver "substantial savings" for NASA, which now spends more than $1.5 billion a year on its computer systems, although he did not specify the savings amount.

A key element of the planned information technology overhaul is modeled after NASA's "major intellectual achievement" — mission control, Strassmann said.

Using as a prototype the mission control centers — which remotely manage the complex machinery of space flight — Strassmann said he wants to build two identical mission control centers to manage NASA's information systems.

Each center will have the help desks, security control, communication availability and software and hardware configuration needed to run NASA's computer systems worldwide, he said.

The mission control centers would operate around the clock and ideally would have no more than 20 minutes of downtime a year. They would be highly secure and hardened against terrorist and cyberterrorist attacks, he said.

The idea would "take our experience from space and bring it to Earth," he said. "We believe NASA can provide a very exciting new view of computing infrastructure for the 21st century for the federal government."

A small-scale version of one center will be operational Oct. 15 at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The model is a radical departure from the norm in the computer industry, where network control, security and support are typically separate functions, he said.

Security is another key element to the IT overhaul. To establish the "electronic identity of people," Strassmann wants to issue smart cards to NASA employees, contractors and others associated with the agency. The cards would include a computer chip with information about the holder.

Much more stringent security and access control at NASA are essential, he said. The agency is a constant target of hackers and possesses "enormous intellectual property assets that [are] the envy of the world" and must be protected.

The mission control centers will know when users are on the NASA system and can disconnect them "in a microsecond," Strassmann said.

One of the first steps in the IT overhaul will be replacing 10 separate accounting systems with one, he added.

He rejected tying together legacy systems and instead plans to convert existing financial records to a new format for a new, integrated financial management system.

A reliable accounting system is considered critical to bringing fiscal order to NASA, where a budget crunch is forcing curtailment of the space station program and threatening other space missions, such as sending exploratory craft to a moon of Jupiter and to Pluto.

IT is not a notable weakness at NASA, according to John Pike, head of Global Security.org, which monitors space and military programs. But at least one automated system — finance — needs reform.

"They need a financial management system that can catch million-dollar cost overruns before they become billion- dollar cost overruns," he said. Space station cost overruns of $4 billion "snuck up on them."

The agency has "squandered taxpayer dollars on finance systems that aren't compatible and can't talk to each other," said Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee who now edits the online publication NASA Watch.

But creating a centralized computer system may not improve NASA's efficiency, he said. "They might spend more time watching people than doing the job they're supposed to be doing."

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