Everything old is new again
NASA takes document management system into a higher orbit
- By Doug Beizer
- Nov 16, 2006
The vintage look has made its way onto the launch pad: the forthcoming Ares I and Ares V rockets, simple tube-shaped crafts, look much like the Apollo rockets that delivered man to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. But these new launch vehicles will take NASA on future missions to the moon, and eventually beyond.
Along with their retro look, the Ares rockets use technologies from the space shuttle and the Apollo spacecrafts. So Tracy Bierman, IT knowledge products manager at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, wasn't surprised to see interest in some NASA archives.
"I've recently had a spate of people wanting old documents," he said. "The Ares launch service structures are very similar, although not identical, to Apollo's."
There are a lot of lessons learned that NASA engineers can glean from those drawings, Bierman said. "I've had a lot of requests for Apollo documentation just to see how they did it in the '60s."
Not long ago, getting those documents would have been difficult at best, perhaps even impossible. Not so today with the NASA TechDoc internal document management system.
NASA TechDoc lets the agency capture and save old documents, and make them searchable via a Google-like interface. The system is a combination of commercial document management products and custom elements. Ultimately, the system will hold 1 billion documents.
The agency also has set up a shared services facility for scanning confidential documents and making them available to authorized people.
The agency started the project in 1991 to capture data on space shuttle payload processing, Bierman said.
But capturing the data was only part of the equation. The agency also needed a self-service system to let users access the data. It looked at commercial products, but "there wasn't anything that met the full requirements," Bierman said.
Many document management systems offered only designs based on a typical central library desk through which all requests and deliveries of information must flow.
That paradigm was little better than NASA's old practice of relying on hard-copy libraries, usually file cabinets stuffed with paper in large warehouses or microfilm in smaller facilities. As late as the mid-1980s, all mission data, even computer-aided design drawings, was paper.
"I would say even the majority of space shuttle stuff is still on paper," Bierman said.
Sharing data with its many foreign partners presented another obstacle for NASA in designing the system.
The Russian Space Agency, for example, is part of the International Space Station project. NASA had to ensure that the system could securely share documents with a foreign partner.
"We have these two competing motivations," Bierman said. "One is that we are NASA, and we would like for the world to have our knowledge. The second motivation is that we deal with rocket engines and highly technical equipment that can be used for bad things, as opposed to space exploration. So we have this requirement to be very secure."
One method to ensure that data is kept secure is to give access control to the subject-matter experts who deem it sensitive. This is similar to today's Web content management system, in that it lets individual Web site owners maintain their content, while allowing the use of search engines to sift through it. The two functions are divided into a discovery layer and a repository management layer.
The system also has on-disk data encryption, built-in firewalls and various ways of authenticating users.
Converting the agency's vast mounds of paper documents into digital ones presented further hurdles. Not only did the data need scanning, it also needed metadata attached to it to make it searchable.
Systems integrator Quality Associates Inc., Columbia, Md., was brought in to help. NASA required a scanning process that was both centralized and decentralized, said Scott Swidersky, director of Quality Associate's information systems division.
"What that basically means is they have these collections all throughout different locations," Swidersky said. "Even if the collections are within the same general location, they might be on different floors."
The agency called for a system that could scale up from a small site with relatively few documents to a large production environment where most of the documents resided.
A system built on a platform from Kofax Image Products Inc. of Irvine, Calif., met the requirements, Swidersky said.
"We started off with a fairly small implementation of Kofax," he said. "From there, they've really been able to plug in pieces as they see the need to expand upon this type of capability within the agency."
To the Kofax system, Quality Associates added Adobe Systems Inc.'s LiveCycle, which lets users attach to documents they are submitting a form that supplies the information needed to classify the material in the electronic content management environment.
As people fill out the form for the scanning center, they describe what metadata they want to use to classify the material, Swidersky said.
"On the fly, it creates a 2D bar code on the documents," he said. "It is part of the scanning process, rather than having to jump around and do a variety of different discovery work to figure out which things are critical about the document."
Today, NASA's Bierman said, the agency can scan 90,000 pages a day.
If you have an innovative solution that you installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Doug Beizer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.