NASA could outsource flights, insource IT

While budget woes leave future space missions in question, the department's cloud computing programs could help curb costs.

Any outsourcing of NASA's human spaceflight program would not necessarily disrupt cloud computing advancements at the Silicon Valley-based Ames Research Center, said officials at NASA headquarters earlier this week.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at an Aug. 19 space and missile defense conference in Huntsville, Ala., that the department will look to the commercial space sector that is capable of providing launch services and building satellites to help expand the frontier of space exploration. NASA reportedly is contemplating moving away from traditional parts of the space program, such as transporting people and materials into orbit, because of growing costs.

But Ames' cloud computing initiative Nebula, aimed at remotely hosting Web services, data storage and IT equipment for other NASA agencies, could help contain those costs, said Ames Chief Information Officer Chris Kemp, who is leading the program and involved in the federal government's cloud computing working group.

"I think there's a big opportunity to save money, first and foremost" by using a cloud computing environment like Nebula, so "we can spend more money on NASA's core mission" when the administration decides what that is, Kemp said this week. NASA has more than 3,000 public Web sites with massive amounts of content that cost a lot of money to maintain and share.

"NASA's activities surrounding cloud computing fall under the purview of the [department] chief information officer, not space operations," said David Steitz, a NASA spokesman. "Any changes in NASA's human spaceflight activities would not necessarily have an effect on the agency's pursuit of cloud computing development."

Assurances that Nebula activities could continue might have an effect on other agencies' budgets. President Obama in his fiscal 2010 budget plan called for all departments to move their IT operations eventually to a cloud environment.

Cloud computing is the term used for outsourcing IT services to a shared platform. Agencies pay for Internet access to the platform, which is housed in an off-site data center and provide anything from business software to supercomputing capabilities.

To help agencies begin the transition to cloud computing, the administration is encouraging the rollout of prototypes, such as Nebula. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has been reviewing many cloud configurations, including using Nebula as a central hub to service multiple agencies, officials from the Office of Management and Budget said in July.

"No decisions have been made on whether NASA will provide IT services to other agencies outside of NASA. . . . I think we're looking for some guidance from our new NASA leadership and Washington," Kemp said.

Some public policy specialists noted NASA's cloud computing concept could carry huge upfront costs but retaining the program would be cost-efficient in the long run.

"In a way, keeping it ticking over probably isn't that expensive. The difficulty is if you have a team doing this, and you take it apart, it becomes difficult to put it back together in the future," said Kenneth Button, director of the Center for Aerospace Policy Research at George Mason University and a transportation policy professor.

But he questioned whether other federal agencies would buy into the system.

"Most departments are fairly territorial. . . . There is always concern that if you leave [IT services] in the hands of one central agency, that unit may dictate what's being provided. And some agencies like their own particular style of operating," Button added.

The private sector also is competing to enter the federal cloud computing market. Companies such as, Microsoft and Ames' Mountain View neighbor Google are among the major players.

"I would like to see the federal government do a better job of more efficiently managing its IT infrastructure, and I'd like to see the private sector step up and provide cloud computing to the federal government," Kemp said.