Buzz of the week | The space economy


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In the coming months, presidential candidates will talk about all the things the federal government does wrong, and it is often easy to focus on problems, but 50 years ago, the government made an important step — one might say one large step — for humanity. It created NASA.

The space agency was created in 1958 in response to the “October surprise” months earlier: the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1.
In celebration of the agency’s upcoming golden anniversary, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin gave a lecture last week about the agency and what he termed the “space economy,” which he said drives innovation. “NASA opens new frontiers and creates new opportunities, and because of that, [NASA] is a critical driver of innovation,” Griffin said. “We don’t just create new jobs, we create entirely new markets and possibilities for economic growth that didn’t previously exist.”

“We see the transformative effects of the space economy all around us through numerous technologies and life-saving capabilities,” Griffin said. “We see the space economy in the lives saved when advanced breast cancer screening catches tumors in time for treatment, or when a heart defibrillator restores the proper rhythm of a patient’s heart. We see it when GPS, the Global Positioning System developed by the Air Force for military applications, helps guide a traveler to his or her destination. We see it when weather satellites warn us of coming hurricanes, or when satellites provide information critical to understanding our environment and the effects of climate change.”

Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach noted that one of the results of Sputnik has nothing to do with space. “It was the creation of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a technology think tank that went on to develop a computer network called ARPAnet. ARPAnet evolved into the Internet,” he wrote.

Perhaps it is the law of unintended consequences, but NASA’s upcoming 50th anniversary seems like a good opportunity to reflect on the realm of the possible and wonder how what we are doing today might affect how we live tomorrow.

The Buzz contenders

#2: VA’s nine-hour ordeal

The Veterans Affairs Department experienced a nine-hour outage at a data-processing center in Sacramento, Calif., last month that crippled the clinical information systems at 17 medical facilities, including the San Francisco VA Medical Center. Dr. J. Ben Davoren, director of clinical informatics at the center, called the outage “the most significant technological threat to patient safety VA has ever had.” Ouch. Regional backup systems were unavailable or overwhelmed at four of the medical centers, he said. Although lawmakers have praised VA’s efforts to standardize and aggregate its clinical information systems at regional centers, Davoren said physicians have had concerns “that the regionalization of IT resources would create new points of failure that could not be controlled by the sites experiencing the impact,” as happened last month.

#3: Judge disappoints JPL employees

Twenty-eight employees at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are preparing to appeal a judge’s decision last week not to issue a temporary injunction that would have prevented JPL from conducting background checks. JPL is obligated under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 to conduct background checks before issuing new identification badges to employees and contractors who work in federal buildings. But the employees say the checks are unnecessarily invasive. The California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, said anyone who does not comply with HSPD-12 requirements will be locked out of the lab beginning Oct. 27.

#4: A new meaning for lowest bid

How does a small-business contractor stay in business when it submits a winning bid of zero? That’s the question some people might be asking since the General Services Administration selected Global Computing Enterprises (GCE) to provide federal contract and grant data for a new database, which must be online and accessible to the public by Jan. 1, 2008. As it turns out, the company had a slight advantage: a contract worth real money to operate GSA’s Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation. However, GCE recognized that GSA needs more than data so the enterprising company forged ahead and created a prototype of the new database (available at Could it be GCE’s way of letting GSA kick the tires before making its next contract award?

#5: Cheaper by the tens of thousands

The Agriculture Department took advantage of steep volume discounts last week when it issued the first task order under the governmentwide SmartBuy encryption contract. USDA placed an order for 180,000 Safeboot Device Encryption licenses for its 29 agencies. In announcing the SmartBuy encryption contract this summer, Tom Kireilis, director of the SmartBuy program, touted it as a sweet deal in which agencies could get discounts of 85 percent on orders of more than 100,000 licenses for encryption products. That’s a smart buy.

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