The Secret Ingredients NASA Used to Build Its Huge Photo Library


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The repository is the culmination of a 3-year effort to make NASA’s data more open and accessible.

From the iconic moon landing to pictures of intergalactic space, more than 140,000 images, audio and video collected by NASA over the decades are now housed in one nice, neat and searchable location:

The NASA Image and Video Library allows the public to search, share and download NASA content from 60 collections now hosted entirely in the Amazon Web Services cloud. The repository is the culmination of a 3-year effort to make NASA’s data more open and accessible to the public, said Rodney Grubbs, NASA imagery expert program manager.

“What we attempted to do here was put the best of the best from 60 collections NASA had into one place,” Grubbs told Nextgov. “Up until now, we haven’t had one single location on the web where you could search across that wide a gamut of content.”

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The design and ease of use of the library website covered up just how complex the migration was, Grubbs said.

NASA had tried a similar effort in the mid-2000s that ultimately ended in failure. One of the key challenges is that each of NASA’s field centers, each replete with its own image and video archive, shared its content differently.

Getting each center—including the Johnson Space Center, with its abundance of launch and astronaut photos—to share content in a standardized way took some doing, Grubbs said.

“I had some buy-in from NASA management that gave me some clout, but we didn’t really demand everyone participate,” Grubbs said. “I said, ‘We’re going to build the best gallery NASA’s ever made and it’s going to have prime real estate, and if you want your content there, we’d love to have it, but I’m not going to beg you.’”

The approach worked, and one by one the centers signed on.

NASA had help from contractor InfoZen, which has aided the space agency in migrating more than 200 websites and applications to the cloud in recent years through its Web Enterprise Service Technology contract.

“What we do is try to help our customers transform,” said Stephen Penyak, senior vice president for InfoZen. “We’re focused not only on IT modernization but transformation—how our customers do business and how they do IT.”

Much of InfoZen’s work came in helping create a common metadata system.

“If you’re going to have meaningful search across multiple platforms, metadata is what you rely on,” Grubbs said.

The final key was cloud computing, Grubbs said. NASA didn’t “want to have to manage government services” and cloud was the “last domino” that fell into place to make the image library a reality. The library will grow daily, as new images across NASA’s inventory are inserted into it. And importantly, Grubbs said, all content is downloadable, including video. Previously, NASA relied on YouTube to make videos available to the public, but they were difficult to download.

Now, students, scientists and interested parties across the country can view and download content at will.