Tuesday, October 01, 2002
Paul Strassmann, NASA's new Chief Information Officer (CIO) spoke at the Annual NASA Alumni League meeting held at NASA Headquarters yesterday. Strassmann opened his presentation by noting that NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe had dragged him out of his "fourth retirement" and that over the years he had become known as "The Fixer".
In addition to being "the Fixer", Strassmann is also quite obviously the chief NASA evangelist for the 'One NASA' concept that Sean O'Keefe has been promoting. In a word he described his current job at NASA as being "to look at NASA as 'One NASA'." 'One NASA' is a concept Sean O'Keefe has been applying to his efforts to break down political and operational barriers that exist within NASA so as to get everyone to work as one large agency - and not as competing fiefdoms.
Putting his task into perspective he said "NASA spends $2.2 billion a year on information technology - but only 7% of that sum is spent on anything resembling One NASA." The rest of this sum is chopped up by various contracts." Strassmann described his NASA acclimatization process in less than complementary terms. As he visited various field centers and examined the infrastructure, he said that he was "reminded of an archaeological expedition."
He noted that the current infrastructure is a conglomeration of bits and pieces -hardware and software - that have been put into place over the years by various contractors. This makes the whole process of trying to fix - or modernize things all that much more difficult.
Strassmann said that the network that links computers together is what is at the top of the heap these days - not individual computers. It is who - and how components communicate with one another that is the real issue. Even if you change organization charts, the software remains the means whereby things are controlled.
When he first arrived at NASA, Strassmann asked to be shown a 'network map' of NASA's information systems. Much to his consternation he was told that there was no such thing. Citing this lack of an overall concept of what NASA has - and what it needs Strassmann said "we need to get control of the pipes (network)" Strassmann said.
He went on to describe the existing NASA network structure as being like a large rope made up of smaller pieces of string. Some strings are frayed. Some are thin. Some are fat in some places. It is as if someone constructed the U.S. interstate highway system out of local streets." Extending the analogy, Strassmann said "we have to set up a network that is 'One NASA' - like the Federal highway system with standards for bridges, lanes, etc."
As an example of the over-complexity of the current NASA system he said "there are currently 10 million IP addresses in the system. There should only be 10,000." Moreover, he said that the NASA network "must be able to see all other points on the network."
All is not gloomy though. Strassmann found some inspiration when he visited Mission Control Center at NASA JSC. "I had never seen anything as advanced in conceptual thinking as Mission Control. What you see in that room - people sitting at consoles - are people who can respond instantly to changes. In one room they can tell what goes on in every circuit board. If anything goes wrong they can get the right information and send it up to the crew.
Strassmann said that he had never seen anything quite like this. "Many corporations have 'network control centers' but nowhere in the world is there anything as sophisticated as Mission Control." It is here that Strassmann got his inspiration to "take Mission Control from an extraterrestrial environment and bring it down to the ground."
This is not a simple thing to do. "Mission Control has one thing to worry about. NASA has a quarter million things to worry about." He noted that he had been approached by Lockheed Martin who told him "it took us 20 years to do this and we are almost there." Strassmann then said that Lockheed Martin made him an offer - to create a replica of their 'Global Mission Control' located in Orlando. They offered to do this for $1.5 million and to do so in 16 weeks. Strassmann said he was pleased to say, "as of today this facility is operational. The beginning of 'One NASA' has been launched: it is an environment that looks like Mission Control at JSC."
Strassmann then said "if everything goes right we'll start to roll out 'One NASA' on 15 October 2002." The goal being to eventually have "end to end visibility on all NASA network transactions."
When asked if this new system as in place at NASA Headquarters, Strassmann joked that it was not and that "you should never run anything [like this] out of headquarters. The first system is operation out of NASA MSFC. The next will be installed at Stennis Space Center inside an old Navy ammunition depot - one located within a Navy SEAL training facility.
NASA has also issued an RFP calling for a 'One NASA Webportal'. I asked Strassmann if this new portal would address the issue of the way that current NASA Field Center websites are set up - one wherein there is minimal linking to other field centers - or to NASA headquarters. Strassmann replied that 30 firms had expressed some interest in the 'One NASA Webportal' and that an announcement would be made around 1 December 2002.
A teacher stood up and bemoaned the fact that NASA's educational materials were often written by professionals - for professionals and that there was not enough focused material appropriate for classrooms online at NASA. Strassmann agreed to some extent with that assessment and said that a "master index of all NASA educational material" would be online by 1 Feb 2003.
Strassmann mentioned the fact that he had recently [September 2002] given an order that all NASA websites be pulled offline until such time as each one could certify that they were in compliance with regard to ITAR regulations. While most NASA website returned to normal operations, there are still some notable sites such as the CLCS which remain offline.
In closing, Strassmann gave out his new email address - paul.Strassmann@nasa.gov. He made sure that people noted that there was no ".hq" in the address (denoting headquarters) and that by 1 February 2003 all NASA civil servants will have their email addresses changed so as to remove the field center designation. This way everyone will soon be emailing from 'one NASA' and not many subdivisions. Moreover, this simplifies finding someone's email address regardless of their location since each center currently exerts its own peculiar twist on transforming one's name into an email address.
Strassmann also said that NASA would soon unveil a revamped directory system given that the current X.500 system is fragemented "and is never up to date". Note: the current NASA HQ X.500 portal is hidden (it used to have a prominent link on the NASA HQ homepage) and has broken graphics links. Moreover the link to X.500 from the Headquarters Information Technology and Communications Division (Code CI)
page points to a dead location. It has been this way for months.
As far as the impact on internal users within the agency - let's hope that the old email addresses still work - at least for a while. Many will recall the confusion that accompanied the symbolic name change from "Lewis" to "Glenn" Research Center and what it did to email addresses, distribution lists, web page links, etc. And that was just at one center.
Some of the 'One NASA' efforts are substantial and will require a lot of money and reworking of infrastructure. Other changes are more (perhaps purely) symbolic. Yet all seem (thus far) to be channeled towards an attempt to both break down internal barriers and consolidate the agency's human and information resources. Given the inter-center rivalries within NASA which have been fostered over the decades, it is going to take more than changing email addresses and consolidating websites to accomplish any significant portion of the core intent of 'One NASA' i.e. the creation of a truly unified space agency. That challenge not withstanding, at least people outside the agency will soon find it a little bit easier to navigate their way around the electronic version of NASA.