Patricia Dunnington, NASA

August 2006
By Patricia Dunnington, Chief Information Officer, NASA

"Which emerging technology will have the biggest impact on your organization in the future?"

Throughout its nearly 50 years in existence, NASA has taken great pride in operating at the cutting edge of technology in conducting important exploration and research missions for the nation. Now, with its new strategy to lead the way in extending the presence of human civilization throughout the solar system—beginning with the return of humans to the moon as early as 2018 and leading to the eventual human exploration of Mars—NASA will certainly be counting on a number of advanced technologies to go forward with its exploration activities.

Under the strategy announced by President Bush two years ago as the Vision for Space Exploration, the fundamental goal of NASA activities will be to advance American scientific, security and economic interests through a robust but affordable space exploration program. In support of this goal, NASA will conduct sustained and affordable human and robotic solar system exploration in the years ahead; complete the construction of the international space station by 2010; return astronauts to the moon to conduct extensive scientific, explorative and commercial activities on the lunar surface in preparation for the exploration of Mars and beyond; and promote international and commercial cooperation.

As NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has said, “Our investment in exploration is an investment in the highest of high-tech sectors and will help maintain America’s position as the pre-eminent technical nation on Earth. Space exploration is a lens that brings a focus to the development of key technologies in a way that simply would not occur without the ‘demand pull’ that arises when trying to accomplish the near-impossible.”

We believe the technology development necessary to implement the Vision for Space Exploration will accelerate advances in robotics, autonomous and fault-tolerant systems, human-machine interface, materials, life support systems and novel applications of nanotechnology as well as microdevices. If history is any guide, these and other technologies we develop will have a tremendous impact on human society in numerous beneficial and unanticipated ways.

From the chief information officer perspective, one of NASA’s most valuable assets is information. It is, therefore, important that we develop and maintain a focus on the strategic management of information. Emerging information technologies and service delivery models offer opportunities to support this strategic focus.

Because technology has increased the amount of information NASA programs can produce, analyze, store and interpret, the agency made a strong and effective effort of managing, preserving, protecting and distributing this information across the agency and externally to stakeholders, including the public. This is imperative to NASA mission success.

NASA has an ongoing plan to design, implement and manage programmatic and institutional information systems and services that enable the agency’s mission and management objectives.

The administration evaluates information solution and service needs required for mission success by using the NASA Enterprise Architecture to define where it is today and where it wants to be in the future and to identify any gaps as well as to formulate concepts and opportunities to fill the gaps. We have applied best practices and portfolio management to select information technology project investments that best meet NASA’s priorities within resource constraints.

The entire NASA chief information office staff is always looking for opportunities and ways to meet the administration’s internal and external information needs, conforming to the appropriate standards of security and information management and meeting the greatest number of needs with the fewest number of systems possible. The NASA Portal is a good example of providing the public with improved service through a single portal to NASA information and applying content management tools to ensure consistent quality of the information while moving public Web traffic outside the NASA networks to free up bandwidth for internal NASA services.

By applying these same principles in the NASA Enterprise Architecture, the chief information office is better positioned to make decisions about services that can be provided to NASA by others as well as systems that are critical to retain in-house. For example, NASA’s payroll services are provided by the Department of Interior’s NationalBusinessCenter, so NASA no longer needs to maintain and operate an internal payroll system. However, for systems that support our mission programs and projects, it is essential to have strong, in-house development and operations capabilities to meet mission-critical requirements, to manage risk and to protect our information.

Information technology is a key enabler of NASA’s mission and management needs. Emerging technologies offer the potential to improve our ability to store, search, retrieve, analyze, interpret, share, protect and manage NASA’s information assets.