40 years after moon landing, public unaware of NASA's tech contributions

Many think the Apollo program and GPS navigation are the biggest accomplishments, but other agencies have benefited from the space agency's IT systems.

On July 20, NASA will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, but space enthusiasts and lawmakers are concerned that the public is unaware of the space agency's work and how its technological developments have improved everyday life.

Many Americans think NASA's major contributions to technology include primarily the Apollo program and maybe GPS navigation, but agencies also have benefited from NASA-based information technology systems.

Agencies such as the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments and the Environmental Protection Agency have benefited from several NASA IT investments. The space agency's California-based Ames Research Center and Maryland-based Goddard Space Flight Center provide other agencies with access to some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.

Goddard's high-performance computing resources contribute to research on the Earth's climate, which could aid Agriculture with crop research, help EPA monitor global warming and assist the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with weather forecasts, said Eric Wieman, general manager for Perot Systems government services' civilian IT division in Fairfax, Va.

While the Plano, Texas-based company, which employs more than 23,000 associates, has long supported NASA's endeavors, IT work opportunities have decreased during the past seven years because the space agency has begun awarding more IT contracts to small businesses, he said.

Many of NASA's large contracts fund space launches, Wieman said. But new IT acquisitions are in the works. NASA currently is reviewing industry input on a draft solicitation for the new Information Technology Infrastructure Integration Program, a contract vehicle that will buy services for agencywide management, integration and IT delivery.

The success of those plans largely depends on contracting management, Wieman said. "The challenge they face with those procurements has nothing to do with technology. What really needs to happen is change management in the way NASA does business," Wieman said.

The new procurements will require officials to conduct more transactions online and the services will alter the way employees access everything from e-mail to archived satellite images. "The issue of change management has to be near the top of the list of when they decide who is going to win those procurements," he said.

At a House Science and Technology panel hearing on Thursday, lawmakers discussed making space more relevant to everyday needs such as health and economic prosperity. The Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics also addressed the difficulty of replicating the public excitement that the Apollo moon-mission era generated.

Space is intertwined with FAA's Next-Generation Air Transportation System, which is intended to make plane travel greener, safer and faster, testified Patti Grace Smith, a former FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation and current member of the board of directors of the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo. The nongovernmental foundation works to advance space-related endeavors.

"On a local scale, metropolitan authorities in several cities have implemented systems like the one now in place for D.C.'s Metrobus service, which allows passengers to check on the Internet or by telephone to see when the next bus will arrive," she said.

Keith Cowing, a former NASA scientist who now compiles the space policy blog NASA Watch, noted that the National Institutes of Health "has a lot of breast cancer imaging that comes from systems that were developed at NASA."

The space agency also has the capability to host governmentwide cloud computing to basically provide Internet access to hardware and software for the entire federal government, he said.