Spaceship work saves NASA Ames computing jobs

NASA Ames Research Center's role as information technology lead for the new spacecraft program will save many, if not all, IT jobs that were at risk last year, according to NASA Ames officials.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based research center is home to supercomputer Columbia, which ranks fourth on the Top 500 list of the world’s fastest computers. Columbia is a project of the NASA Advanced Computing Division at the center.

Yesterday, NASA officials announced the assignments for all 10 centers at NASA regarding the program to get man back to the Moon, and then to Mars. Ames is in charge of IT, software and thermal protection systems.

Last year, Ames’ IT workforce had expected to lose many positions. In March 2005, NASA Ames officials said they would eliminate the positions of as many as 25 percent of their supercomputing and space exploration robotics employees. NASA officials offered a buyout package to all but 70 of their 1, 400 federal employees. Through buyouts, layoffs and other means, Ames officials planned to slash 15 to 20 jobs in supercomputing and 20 to 25 employees’ positions in robotics within a year and a half.

Now, with the spaceship duties and a recent budget reprioritization, funding for supercomputing jobs is stable and growing with the rate of inflation, said Eugene Tu, director of exploration technology at the NASA Ames Research Center.

“We have not had to face the workforce reductions we had originally feared” in supercomputing,” he said.

In the fall, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin designated the Columbia project as an important agency asset and funded the program at the agency level, instead of at the program level, as in the past. In addition, the agency has recognized Columbia’s contribution to the new vision for space exploration, aeronautics and science. There are new plans to upgrade the system in late 2007 with next-generation capabilities.

The Columbia supercomputer is already heavily involved in the Constellation program. Columbia’s modeling and simulations are supporting the definition of requirements for the spaceship, as well as the vehicle used to launch it. The computer is running risk assessments and abort scenarios for both vehicles. For thermal protection, the computer is analyzing the composition of potential materials to be used in the heat shield of the spaceship, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

“These are tools that were not available back in the Apollo days,” Tu said.

Under the IT umbrella, Ames technology specialists will craft collaborative work environments to serve the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. Other IT projects include computer tools for flight controllers, training software and safety and mission assurance information systems for the exploration program.

While NASA officials do not foresee any job losses in supercomputing, staffing needs for the other IT areas are unknown, Tu said.

"We’re optimistic we’re not going to have to see the reductions we talked about last year,” he said. “Right now, we are not anticipating [reduction in force] in the IT areas.”

Tu attributes the turnaround to Ames' IT responsibilities for Constellation, and Ames’ work on small satellites that contribute to space exploration.

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