Speaking at NASA's first-ever information technology conference, the agency's top official said he will focus next year on cybersecurity and shrinking IT infrastructure.
Aside from the Defense Department, "we are the most poked and prodded organization in the government in terms of intrusions into what we do," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Monday, during a speech that kicked off the three-day summit. The event convenes IT specialists from across government, academia and industry, including an official from Walt Disney Imagineering and Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, widely known as the father of the Internet for co-designing the network.
As recently as February, federal auditors reported that NASA has not resolved longstanding vulnerabilities along its networks that could threaten space missions. "These networks traverse the Earth and beyond, providing critical two-way communication links between Earth and spacecraft; connections between NASA centers and partners, scientists and the public; and administrative applications and functions," Government Accountability Office officials said in a report on key program challenges at the space agency.
Bolden said he would strive to bolster information security at NASA.
The purpose of the unprecedented gathering is to educate NASA IT workers about innovations in computing, honor their achievements and share strategies for carrying out core initiatives handed down by President Obama.
The White House has called on all agencies to consolidate data centers to boost cost and energy efficiency, partly by switching to cloud computing. NASA has been a pioneer in this technology, which allows users to access computer programs through Web-based hardware and software on a subscription basis, instead of relying on in-house data centers.
Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who is expected to speak at the forum on Wednesday, has pointed to NASA as a leader in government cloud computing. When launching Apps.gov, an online storefront for ordering cloud services, in September, he highlighted Nebula, an application that allows users worldwide to access NASA data, as a model.
Bolden said NASA will continue to foster open government, as mandated by the president. According to an audit academics and government transparency groups conducted, the space agency ranks No. 1 among federal agencies for establishing a culture of disclosure, public participation and collaboration with the private sector. The evaluators said NASA CIO Linda Cureton's work on a roadmap for open government, which includes the expansion of Nebula, pushed the space agency to the top.
"There is no field in which we should assume leadership more than IT," Bolden said, referring to the discipline as "the backbone of much of our work."
Perhaps contrary to popular belief, IT on manned spacecraft is rather slow and low on memory compared with home personal computers, he said. "We have general purpose computers on board the shuttle," said Bolden, a former astronaut and retired Marine Corps major general.
The systems are akin to computers in the planes he flew as a naval aviator in the early 1970s during combat missions in Vietnam, he added. Bolden later joined NASA's astronaut office and blasted off into orbit four times between 1986 and 1994, commanding two of the missions.
"The first laptop came about because we needed to tell crews [on the shuttle] that we're coming up on a spot where we need you to take a picture," he said, adding that the first laptops used in the government were GRiD brand computers.