WORLD NEWS & ANALYSIS
Top NASA managers are developing plans to rewire the agency with advanced, high-security computer systems in the hope that greater centralization will improve management efficiency and make it easier to control the disparate field centers.
THE PLANS ARE IN KEEPING with Administrator Sean O'Keefe's ``One NASA'' concept, which seeks to subordinate what NASA previously termed its 10 nationwide ``centers of excellence'' to headquarters' direction. As part of the effort, NASA's new chief information officer wants to set up redundant, hardened ``mission control centers'' where managers can monitor ``when anybody twitches'' on a NASA computer.
Ultimately all types of data used by the agency would move through the network, with NASA buying communications bandwidth as needed to accommodate it, according to CIO Paul Strassmann. Also in the works is an agency-wide public affairs World Wide Web portal that would give one-stop access to the thousands of pages of Web documents NASA maintains, a job the agency is taking on after an experiment in commercializing NASA's Internet presence failed with the dot.com crash.
``We believe NASA can provide a very exciting new view of computing infrastructure for the 21st century for the federal government,'' Strassmann said Aug. 2.
Strassmann's starting point is O'Keefe's attempt to bring NASA's financial management systems under control. Evolved separately over time at the different field centers, the agency's electronic bookkeeping systems are so bad that PricewaterhouseCoopers was unable to issue an opinion on NASA's accounts for Fiscal 2001 because it couldn't get the information it needed in time (AW&ST Mar. 25, p. 27). Strassmann said the first step to fixing that situation would be to ``bite the bullet'' and transfer data from the existing hodgepodge of accounting systems around the agency to a single format.
That work is already underway, under the direction of Patrick A. Ciganer, a special assistant to O'Keefe. Ciganer said the agency has decided to do the job with commercial off-the-shelf software available government-wide through the General Services Administration.
``The previous attempts [at fixing NASA's financial management system] were, from what I understand, a development that would have been NASA-unique,'' said Ciganer. ``What we've done in this case is say `let's just find something that we know runs.'''
Strassmann argued that a consolidated system would enable more efficient management of money at the agency in the future. His plans call for computing to be delivered as an ``information systems services utility'' across the agency, providing ``end-to-end computing services all the way down, not only to the desktop but also to the keystroke.''
``We are talking about a major reorientation of NASA to look at 21st century computing,'' Strassmann said. ``One NASA is not just clumping things together, consolidating. One NASA is delivering a new architecture that takes advantage of the fact that communication, particularly optical fiber prices, have plunged. We want to now shift costs from very expensive local hardware maintenance to consolidated services delivered over inexpensive pipes.''
The sorry state of financial management at NASA has been blamed for the shortfall in the agency's International Space Station (ISS) accounts, and for NASA's continuing inability to determine precisely what it will cost to build even a truncated station able to support only three crewmembers. While consolidating financial management systems may help solve ISS management problems in the future, Strassmann said he didn't know exactly how the past financial management practices at NASA contributed to the $4.8-billion ISS shortfall.
``I have never seen that number,'' said Strassmann, who was named CIO on July 17 after serving as a special assistant to O'Keefe. ``I have no way of even commenting on it.''
Nor could he say just how much money would be saved by consolidating NASA's computers.
``Right now my objective is to achieve operating savings,'' Strassmann said. ``NASA is spending well over $1.5 billion on institutional computing.''
The agency has budgeted $11 million this fiscal year to kick-start the upgrades, Ciganer said, with future spending on new systems covered by the $1.5 billion a year NASA already spends. One early purchase will be a pilot ``mission control center'' for computer network operations scheduled to open by Oct. 15 at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
That facility, being assembled under existing computer support contracts, will be the network focus for the integrated financial management system Ciganer is putting together. But Strassmann has more ambitious plans for redundant ``hot-replaceable'' control centers that will combine in one room all the help desks, security control, communications monitoring and software and hardware control needed to keep NASA's new computer system operating efficiently, with a goal of only 20 min. downtime a year.
``Perhaps the major intellectual achievement on the part of NASA is the concept of mission control, namely that you have a room where you set up an integrated environment for life support of very complex objects,'' Strassmann said.
The redundant centers will be located at yet-to-be-selected hardened sites--possibly on military bases--that can be protected from terrorist attack. Strassmann's plans also call for a new system of smart-card readers that control both physical access to NASA computers and access online for authorized users. If a breach is detected, controllers would be able to disconnect an unauthorized user ``in a microsecond.''
WHILE STRASSMANN'S PLANS CALL for shutting off unauthorized access to NASA computers, he also wants to set up a unified Web portal managed by the headquarters Office of Public Affairs where members of the public would be able to access all of the agency's public information. The portal would partially duplicate a commercial site that was to have been developed by Dreamtime, a Silicon Valley startup that tried and failed to digitize the agency's archives and human spaceflight assets as a commercial venture (AW&ST Mar. 18, p. 23).
Strassmann argued that tightened security and access control are necessary today, when young computer hackers have already penetrated NASA's computer firewalls and the national security establishment sees evidence of more sinister intrusions.
``We believe that as you move into the era of information warfare, NASA and its assets are one of the targets, and therefore we believe that a level of security which is commensurate with war on terrorism is appropriate at this juncture,'' Strassmann said. ``So far as Paul Strassmann is concerned, we are at war.''
Photograph: NASA's new CIO wants to duplicate the efficiency of Mission Control Center-Houston to oversee the agency's computers.
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