Congress

NASA's aging tech worries Capitol Hill watchdogs

Shutterstock image: the capitol in the afternoon sun.

Leaders of government oversight panels in the House and Senate are worried that NASA is relying on obsolete technology.

In a Dec. 22 letter, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), respectively the chairmen of the House and Senate government oversight panels, asked NASA for details on legacy IT systems, including plans to modernize or replace outdated systems as well as the oldest programming languages still being used.

The letter asks NASA to identify its top three mission-critical legacy IT systems, to specify if and when the agency plans to replace them and to provide the amount the agency spends to keep the legacy systems running.

The committee members also ask NASA to share the year it starting using its oldest programming languages, the size of its legacy code base, and the number of staffers fluent in each language. COBOL and FORTRAN, which are called out in the letter, date back to the 1950s.

The lawmakers want answers from NASA by Jan. 29.

Other signatories to the letter include House Oversight Committee members Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who chairs the IT Subcommittee, and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the ranking member of the Government Operations Subcommittee and a sponsor of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act.

Aging systems are an expensive problem for agencies. The Government Accountability Office noted in its High Risk report for 2015 that, "almost three quarters of the federal government’s annual $80 billion in IT spending is for maintaining and operating legacy IT."

There's a gathering personnel crisis as well. Federal CIO Tony Scott noted at a White House meeting in November 2015 that,"The people who built [the old IT systems still in use] are leaving." he said. Incoming IT professionals might lack the training to take over the older systems that rely on outdated programming languages.

GAO also is taking an interest. According to the letter, the congressional oversight agency is following up its 2015 High Risk designation for government IT acquisition with a report examining government use of legacy IT systems to be released in 2016.

 

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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