Critical Update: Inside NASA’s Digital Transformation

Mark Van Scyoc/

The space agency’s digital modernization is aimed at augmenting and improving three key mission areas, according to its chief data officer.

NASA is known largely for its aeronautics efforts, conducting important Earth science and exploring the cosmos, but one of its key tech efforts of late underpins each of those core mission areas.

In early 2020, the space agency began a digital transformation initiative to jumpstart the ways in which it incorporates increasingly large amounts of data, applies emerging technologies to business challenges and reassesses its partnerships.

Ron Thompson, NASA’s chief data officer and digital transformation officer, told Nextgov’s Critical Update podcast that he and NASA Langley’s associate director for technical, Jill Marlow, have been heading the transformation effort. They recently completed listening tours with dozens of NASA officials across the country, focusing on challenges around data, workforce and culture.

 “So what we're doing is taking a look at how NASA works, looking across our enterprise and across our mission directorates and in our centers,” Thompson said. “And we’re looking at areas where we can use digital as a lever to transform how we work, how we share information and how we can come together as an enterprise to solve our complex problems.”

While nascent, the effort has already sparked successful collaborative efforts in dealing with certain challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, Thompson said NASA stood up a contact tracing application, and through partnerships forged through the Federal Chief Data Officers Council, brought external datasets that otherwise would have been walled off into the agency to inform decision-making.

Thompson said the digital transformation will impact NASA’s Earth-based day-to-day operations as well as potential operations in space. Artificial intelligence technologies at the agency are already assisting humans parse through thousands of resumes, and they may soon assist helmet-to-helmet communications among astronauts. Thompson even hinted on a “data center on the moon at some point,” adding that technology underpins even the most science-fiction-sounding projects the agency contemplates.

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