Official: Despite budget cuts, NASA to continue spending on IT

Key areas for the space agency include supercomputing and data mining, and integrated modeling techniques such as structural, optical and thermal simulations.

A top NASA official told a House panel on Thursday that information technology was a high priority, signaling that IT opportunities most likely will survive deep budget cuts at the space agency.

Human exploration beyond Earth, including planned missions to the Moon, is not affordable under NASA's fiscal 2010 budget, according to an independent review of the human space flight program released on Thursday. The review was led by Norman Augustine, former chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Corp., who served on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology during Democratic and Republican administrations.

The House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics on Thursday separately held a hearing with NASA officials and researchers to explore options for strengthening technology development in a tight budget climate. Tech development is another underfunded area that is critical to space flight.

Christopher Scolese, NASA associate administrator, testified that NASA's science program will emphasize "cross-cutting technologies in the annual competitions for its major technology development programs."

Key areas that will guide NASA's future selections for technology development include information systems, such as data processing, supercomputing and data mining, and integrated modeling techniques, such as structural, optical and thermal simulations that share databases.

Some IT services contractors are expecting NASA to keep its word given the White House's general interest in advancing IT. In October, Perot Systems hired Shana Dale Fagan, deputy administrator at NASA during President George W. Bush's administration, a move that underscores the company's growing focus on NASA as a strategic business area. Fagan, a senior vice president at Perot, oversees a division that assists federal agencies with space and Earth programs.

"I think this administration has already demonstrated a strong commitment in terms of information technology," she said. "You've definitely seen that in terms of cybersecurity." President Obama commissioned a 60-day review of government activities that interface with the Web to ensure they coordinate on protections.

Perot has three prime contracts with NASA, including IT services work at the space agency's Ames Research Center in California.

Vivek Kundra, the administration's chief information officer, chose to unveil a major governmentwide cloud-computing initiative at Ames because the center is at the forefront of the evolving technology, Fagan noted. Cloud computing is an Internet-based service offered by third-party data centers that sells on-demand software, hardware, storage and applications to businesses and agencies. Ames' Nebula pilot cloud provides storage and network connectivity for educational institutions and other NASA research partners.

Perot's business with Ames involves human performance issues, such as understanding how people collaborate with one another and machines. "This has applications for longer-flight space missions," Fagan said.

Witnesses from the National Academies who testified on Thursday said 10 percent of NASA's budget should be devoted to nonmission-oriented technology development. Scolese was not at liberty to discuss financial figures but said, "Clearly, it's hard to disagree with what was said."

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, who supports sending men back to the Moon and beyond, said technology development should not be shortchanged to carry out flights.

"I want to state my strong belief that we don't revitalize technology development at NASA by robbing Peter to pay Paul," she said. "That is, carving out funding from an already underfunded Constellation [next-generation exploration] program so that the long-term technology program can be augmented would be penny-wise and pound-foolish. You don't fix one underfunded program by taking funding from another underfunded program and expect anything good to result."

The tech industry anticipates increased opportunities for IT vendors, but does not predict a significant increase in NASA IT funding for years. The agency's IT spending will increase about 2 percent during the next five years, which is lower than the estimated 3.3 percent expected growth rate across all civilian agencies, according to a forecast issued on Tuesday by the industry trade group TechAmerica.

"NASA, like most government agencies, is having to use technology to innovate and to realize savings," said Jennifer Kerber, a vice president at the group. "Some of the administration's new focus areas like cloud computing, transparency and innovation could lead to a shift in spending on IT dollars. This is where the new opportunities come into play for contractors."