NASA plans spending on mix of IT

A mix of information technology initiatives at NASA would receive funding under the Bush administration's budget proposal for fiscal 2004, although the space agency's progress in e-government has been slower than in other areas.

Overall, the administration asked Congress for $15.5 billion for NASA — a 6.2 percent increase from the 2003 request. The spending plan for IT touches on such goals as improving the efficiency and scientific return of space missions and using knowledge and technology to improve life on Earth.

The proposal includes money for communications, satellite and aviation programs.

"NASA is a science and technology agency pursuing research in fields as diverse as astronomy and astrophysics, global climate change, human physiology and aeronautical engineering," administration officials wrote in the proposal. The agency "must prioritize its resources to accomplish its most important research goals."

The budget earmarks $31 million for the development of the first operational deep space optical communications system to boost the amount of data that spacecraft can transmit to Earth.

In addition, it provides $79 million for investments in the Climate Change Research Initiative, including satellite instruments, research data, computer models and decision support tools.

"NASA uses remote-sensing satellites to view different environmental processes on the Earth, from severe weather to changes in ozone levels to volcanic eruptions," administration officials wrote in the proposal.

The agency also exploits its unique vantage point from space to boost aviation safety and security. To further those efforts, the request sets aside $21 million for the creation of technologies that make the nation's air transportation system more efficient. NASA cockpit weather displays, for instance, deliver real-time information to aircrews to help them avoid storms.

A chunk of the budget is targeted to the space shuttle, with recommendations that the agency build tools to track the impact of investments on the shuttle's operational life. With each shuttle flying longer, "NASA is examining options for introducing greater competition for work that is currently performed directly by the federal government and federal contractors," administration officials wrote. "A competition plan will be incorporated in next year's budget."

The agency, meanwhile, has met the governmentwide target of putting 15 percent of its commercial-like work out for bid for 2003 but is still working on a plan to achieve the long-term goal of 50 percent, according to the administration.

NASA has begun implementing a strategy to address its workforce needs, including a tracking system to identify deficiencies across the agency. On the whole, "progress in e-government has been slower due to [IT] security reporting issues and problems with completing documentation to justify some [IT] investments," administration officials wrote.

NASA slowed some IT spending last month to make sure investments are in line with the agency's mission. Paul Strassmann, NASA's chief information officer, unveiled the details of an IT overhaul in August that he said would deliver "substantial savings." A major part of the plan includes building two mission control centers — modeled after those that remotely manage the machinery of space flight — to run the agency's information systems.

It is unclear whether the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1 would have an impact on the programs. NASA officials postponed a budget briefing in the wake of the accident.

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