Inside NASA's top 4 IT priorities

NASA might be facing cuts to some of its climate related work but according to ImmixGroup analyst Tom O'Keefe, that doesn't mean the space agency isn't still an area rich in IT opportunities.

This could be an interesting next few years for NASA, especially if the Trump administration scales back the agency’s climate observation work.

But that won’t necessarily stop the space agency from continuing to innovate, embrace new technologies and continue its move toward the cloud. In fact, while there have been recent challenges within the agency, particularly concerning cybersecurity, expect NASA to continue its role as a standard-bearer for new technologies within federal IT.

And with NASA, tech companies don’t need to just focus on the headquarters or center CIOs – a significant amount of NASA’s budget lies with the owners of major systems within the various mission directorates.

NASA’s requested budget for 2017 was $19 billion, down from the $19.3 billion the agency received in 2016. In 2016, the agency had a $1.4 billion IT budget, with more than 80 percent of it going to operations and maintenance. There’s a significant amount of additional IT spend not included within that topline budget, largely spent by the mission directorates themselves. President Trump will release his budget mid-March but he’s already indicated an interest in pushing forward a mission to the red planet and possibly a return to the moon.

NASA already has four clear IT priorities:

Big data and analytics: One of the most important technologies, but not really new terrain at the agency. Few agencies deal with as much data as NASA. But at the agency, the idea is all about making smart data out of big data. Using advanced analytics and deep learning technologies, the agency wants to transform how its 17,500 employees work. Understanding human behavior is the key to transforming the workplace of the future and NASA understands that better than most.

Another important use for big data and analytics tools could also come into play if climate monitoring funding is shifted towards space exploration. NASA’s climate observation satellites frequently need to be steered around space junk, of which the agencies tracks hundreds of thousands of pieces. If the new administration cuts the size of the workforce monitoring these satellites, NASA could turn to big data tools to make more accurate predictions around which satellites need to be moved and when, which could lessen the burden on a smaller staff.

Cloud: At NASA, it’s not just storing information in the cloud or placing public-facing websites in public cloud environments. It’s really about moving application and product development into a cloud-based platform. It’s ensuring that agile and DevOps environments can live in the cloud and provide a collaborative platform so that employees can create the next Saturn V rocket or uncover the next foundational scientific discovery. Having workloads living in the cloud will allow employees at different NASA centers to work together on projects because NASA believes that crowdsourcing work leads to more beneficial results.

Cybersecurity: This is an area of technology that has put NASA in the news quite a bit lately. NASA’s inspector general just released a report that many of the cloud systems used throughout the agency aren’t FedRAMP-certified, posing a security risk. NASA will be looking for cybersecurity solutions that can address these challenges, particularly in securing cloud offerings that aren’t FedRAMP-certified.

Internet of things: This technology is emerging across NASA, and more broadly across government. Right now, NASA is standing up an IoT lab based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, but various IoT implementations have already begun across the agency. Sensors can be found within data centers, engineering labs and random facilities that monitor everything from temperature and humidity to the proper functioning of engines and systems. Expect to see growing demand for IoT devices within NASA as the agency looks to streamline efficiencies in support of new manned missions into space.

NASA is a particularly exciting agency to work with and its mission is one of the most important for the future of scientific discovery. While certain operations may be targeted by the new administration, particularly within the science mission directorate that focuses on climatic studies, funding at NASA should remain relatively stable.

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