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IT's Final Frontier

When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the skies over Texas last February, the accident investigation inevitably triggered debate about the future of the country's space program.

In the ensuing months, NASA's private sector IT contractors waited anxiously. Any significant funding change -- be it a temporary freeze to reassess priorities, or opening the coffers to reinvigorate the agency -- affected their fortunes.

Welcome news arrived in late January. In his State of the Union address, President Bush reaffirmed his commitment to NASA, calling for missions to the moon and Mars and asking Congress to increase the agency's budget by $1 billion over five years. In addition, $11 billion will be shifted toward new initiatives associated with the missions.

The new mandate echoed President Kennedy's 1961 challenge before a joint session of Congress to send Americans to the moon by the end of that decade. But unlike the Apollo program, the new push will involve, and in fact may depend on, the unprecedented involvement of the private sector.

With ambitious goals in place, and money being requested to back it up, IT firms of all sizes are exploring ways to participate. And NASA, long criticized for its insularity, appears more willing to mine the vein of outside expertise.

NASA and the Private Sector

Of course, NASA and the private IT sector are not total strangers. Despite budget cuts totaling 40 percent over the last decade, NASA still awarded lucrative contracts for supercomputers, telecom equipment, network services, Unix, Linux and Windows workstations and support.

Computer Sciences Corp. , Hewlett-Packard and Qwest are just some of the big-name vendors that have supplied the agency. Smaller tech firms and labs also competed for research grants to help NASA engineer around particularly vexing problems.

But under its new directives, NASA is taking a much harder look at current IT infrastructure and needs. On the ground, NASA wants to more closely link the networks of its 10 field offices, which are scattered throughout the country.

"We are moving toward a more tightly federated approach, so integration and interoperability are key issues," NASA spokesman Brian Dunbar told internetnews.com.

Making sure encryption and other systems are in place to protect information zipping between regional operations and engineering hubs is also a priority.

Only two months after its new mandate, NASA has not put out a call for specific equipment orders. Dunbar said NASA is always interested in faster processing chips that could reduce the size of and improve performance of components -- especially for systems that will be launched into space. However that doesn't mean taking chances.

"The bleeding edge is not where we want to be, we need proven technologies and we need to flight-qualify them," said Dunbar, pointing out that equipment must withstand extreme pressure and temperature changes that come with space flight.

NASA is also reaching out to IT giants to form working groups. These experts will study ways to meet the agency's infrastructure goals using off-the-shelf technology instead of gear that is custom-ordered or developed in-house.

It will also look at what IT work can be outsourced. "Not only are we purchasing more equipment but we're also purchasing more services," Dunbar said.

A previous deal with Speedera Networks provides a model. NASA has a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract with the content delivery network to insure that 3,000 individual NASA Web sites, including the heavily-trafficked Mars Exploration Rover site, run smoothly. In January, privately held Speedera delivered 4.5 billion hits through the NASA portal.

Like other enterprises that choose to outsource services, the move not only saves money, but frees IT staff to work on more important projects.

Companies Optimistic

Firms that have had an existing relationship with the federal government in general, or NASA in particular, have an advantage for winning NASA business because they know how to navigate the shoals of the federal procurement process.

"As new missions are approved, we expect to be right there along with NASA," Speedera president and CEO Ajit Gupta said. "From a business perspective, we certainly see this as a boon to the high-tech industry."

Cisco Systems actually established a space unit three years ago because its CEO John Chambers saw the area as one where it could gain market share. The San Jose, Calif., company had previously left much of the sector to defense contractors, who either did the work themselves or hired subcontractors.

Cisco's goal is to adapt routers, switches and networking equipment designed for use on earth, for use on satellites, vehicles or outposts. In September, Cisco launched a router via satellite to test its capabilities and limits in space.

Rick Sanford, who heads Cisco's space unit, said the company has increased its research and develop investment in its space unit over the last two years. He declined to break out the specific number. Overall, Cisco has a $3 billion R&D budget, he said.

Sanford said the space group's work can also have applications here on earth. The essential challenges of establishing high-speed, reliable data links between a space shuttle and a space station are not unlike those of an 18-wheeler and a trucking depot, he said.

Cisco, which has been invited by NASA to brainstorm ways that the agency and IT vendors can better work together, will also be pushing for standards for space communications systems, so equipment from different manufacturers can communicate. The first meeting of this cooperative group takes place next month.

Cultural Change Needed

Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, an organization that supports space exploration, is excited by NASA's new missions, but urged the government to "involve the private sector from Day One."

"We believe that returning to the moon is the right thing to do," Tumlinson testified before a U.S. Senate science and transportation committee in January. "But NASA as currently constituted cannot pull it off. It is still caught in a self-perpetuating loop of inefficiencies."

But he does see some signs of progress. For example, he praised a $20 million line item in NASA's budget to award cash prizes for technology breakthroughs. With prizes, NASA could get 15 or 20 proposals -- some extremely credible, some incredible. But the agency could find a firm that developed a completely unexpected solution to a problem. Still, Tumlinson would like to see the amount of the prizes raised. He called the $20 million figure "paltry" relative to NASA's overall budget.

Tumlinson is adamant that the more private companies -- especially those in semiconductor and communications sectors -- are involved in space, the more progress will be made. He points to the development of computers and the Internet as examples of the private sector driving technological advances because of competition.

"(Computers and the Internet) were handed over to the private sector, and the private sector went wild with it," Tumlinson said.

If that hadn't happed, would-be computer users would be lined up with punch-cards outside the gates of a few government facilities waiting their turn, he chided.

"The only way we can make [the moon and Mars missions] work is to have a wedge of private sector involvement that eventually takes the lead," Tumlinson said.