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Why Is NASA Re-Inventing IT vs. Putting Men On the Moon? Simple.

The NASA insignia.
Image via Wikipedia

I was struck with a sense of disappointment as I read Bob Wardspan’s (Smoothspan) blog today “NASA Fiddles While Rome Is Burning.”  So as Bob was rubbed the wrong way by Alex Howard’s post (below,) so too was I by Bob’s perspective.  All’s fair in love and space, I suppose.

In what amounts to a scathing indictment of new areas of innovation and research, he laments the passing of the glory day’s of NASA’s race to space, bemoans the lack of focus on planet-hopping, and chastises the organization for what he suggests is their dabbling in spaces they don’t belong:

Now along comes today’s NASA, trying to get a little PR glory from IT technology others are working on.  Yeah, we get to hear Vinton Cerf talk about the prospects for building an Internet in space.  Nobody will be there to try to connect their iGadget to it, because NASA can barely get there anymore, but we’re going to talk it up.  We get Lewis Shepherd telling us, “Government has the ability to recognize long time lines, and then make long term investment decisions on funding of basic science.”  Yeah, we can see that based on NASA’s bright future, Lewis.

Bob’s upset about NASA (and our Nation’s lost focus on space exploration.  So am I.  However, he’s barking up the wrong constellation.  Sure, the diversity of different technologies mentioned in Alex Howard’s blog on the NASA IT Summit are wide and far, but NASA has always been about innovating in areas well beyond the engineering of solid rocket boosters…

Let’s look at Cloud Computing — one of those things that you wouldn’t necessarily equate with NASA’s focus.  Now you may disagree with their choices, but the fact that they’re making them is what is important to me.  They are, in many cases, driving discussion, innovation and development.  It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but then again, neither is a Saturn V.

NASA didn’t choose to cut space exploration and instead divert all available resources and monies toward improving the efficiency and access to computing resources and reducing their cost to researchers.  This was set in motion years ago and was compounded by the global economic meltdown.

The very reasons the CIO’s (Chief Information Officers) — the people responsible for IT-related mission support — are working diligently on new computing platforms like Nebula is in many ways a direct response to the very cause of this space travel deficit — budget cuts.  They, like everyone else, are trying to do more with less, quicker, better and cheaper.

The timing is right, the technology is here and it’s an appropriate response.  What would you have NASA IT do, Bob? Go on strike until a Saturn V blasts off?  The privatization of space exploration will breed all new sets of public-private partnership integration and information collaboration challenges.  These new platforms will enable that new step forward when it comes.

The fact that the IT divisions of NASA (whose job it is to deliver services just like this) are innovating simply shines a light on the fact that for their needs, the IT industry is simply too slow.  NASA must deal with enormous amounts of data, transitive use, hugely collaborative environments across multiple organizations, agencies, research organizations and countries.

Regardless of how you express your disappointment with NASA’s charter and budget, it’s unfortunate that Bob chose to suggest that this is about “…trying to get a little PR glory from IT technology others are working on” since in many cases NASA has led the charge and made advancements and innovated where others are just starting.  Have you met Linda Cureton or Chris Kemp from NASA?  They’re not exactly glory hunters.  They are conscientious, smart, dedicated and driven public servants, far from the picture you paint.

In my view, NASA IT (which is conflated as simply “NASA”) is doing what they should — making excellent use of taxpayer dollars and their budget to deliver services which ultimately support new efforts as well as the very classically-themed remaining missions they are chartered to deliver:

  • To improve life here,
  • To extend life to there,
  • To find life beyond.

I think if you look at the missions that the efforts NASA IT is working on, it certainly maps to those objectives.

To Bob’s last point:

What’s with these guys?  Where’s my flying car, dammit!

I find it odd (and insulting) that some seek to blame those whose job is mission support — and doing a great job of it — as if they’re the cause of the downfall of space exploration.  Like the rest of us, they’re doing the best they can…fly a mile in their shoes.

Better yet, take a deeper look at to what they’re doing and how it maps to supporting the very things you wish were NASA’s longer term focus — because at the end of the day when the global economy recovers, we’ll certainly be looking to go where no man and his computing platform has gone before.


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  1. TooTallSid
    August 26th, 2010 at 13:04 | #1

    OK, I'll say it: space will be explored by computers, not people. At first it will be proxies in the form of robots, and then it will be us, after we evolve to silicon lifeforms.

    I am amazed by how many of my fellow space nuts resist admitting this. We were all raised on speculative fiction; we are all smart; we can run the numbers; we've read Kurzweil.

    Scientific American had a great article a couple of years ago about how a trip to Mars meant death or worse from radiation. The article examined all the far-fetched, impractical ideas put forth to protect the meat.

    We evolved from lightning bolts and ammonia and it shows. Our task is to mid-wife the next step in creation, self-aware computers. And the hard part is less about technology and more about the applications – do we want to build another Hitler, or a Gandhi, and how do we do it?

    Gee, applications trump technology – kind of like an iPhone…

  2. September 3rd, 2010 at 13:21 | #2

    Hi Chris – thanks for the nod to coverage of my remarks at the NASA Summit. However, Bob actually missed my point, because Alex’s fine article didn’t actually cover the main thrust of my remarks – yes, great advances are taking place in sci-tech, but government (and NASA) are being left behind! My whole point was not just that government _can_ take a longer view, but that it can and yet _isn’t_ – and certainly not to the benefit of NASA. I was citing stats left and right about the lack of investment etc. You and I agree that NASA's CIO is making strategically important and valuable investments in new technology areas; and Bob and I agree that for NASA it needs to (and should) pay off in increased space exploration mission achievements. I'll make the same point over at Bob's blog… thanks – lewis

  3. September 15th, 2010 at 14:29 | #3


    Excellent discussion – as always. I've reviewed Nebula and appreciate it's capabilities and great work of C. Kemp and team.

    With budget cuts, I presume the question is likely around the best way to satisfy those NASA scientists figuring out the "flying car". Obviously cloud is a key element for complex, high-performance compute processing. Is NASA measuring the effort to build Nebula vs using another provider that meets functional/non-functional, etc.. SLA requirements at the best cost. If so, seems the "why nebula" argument is mute.

  4. September 15th, 2010 at 14:32 | #4

    or perhaps the argument is "moot"….. and I need to mute my pandora

  1. December 10th, 2011 at 10:01 | #1