NASA aims for IT mission control

"Instead of a big bang approach, we have decided to take a modular approach." -- NASA's Paul Strassman

Henrik G. DeGyor

NASA has made history for decades with its work in space. Now it is planning a revolutionary project to improve its systems here on Earth.

The space agency will launch two mission control centers to oversee computer operations. NASA also is coming closer to bringing its financial management down to earth.

The centers will monitor NASA computers 'down to the keyboard,' be able to switch their control functions immediately and operate continuously, said Paul Strassman, special assistant to the administrator for information management. Strassman, the former Defense Department systems chief who has been a special assistant at NASA since mid-July, spoke at an Aug. 2 briefing with reporters.

'NASA will be the first to pull this off,' he said of the twin mission control centers. A pilot version of the first mission control center is set to become operational Oct. 15 at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Strassman would not identify the location of the second center, saying only that both centers would be in secure locations.

The centers will experience less than 20 minutes of downtime annually, he said.

Savings expected

Although he wouldn't specify what NASA plans to spend to create the two centers, Strassman said the cost would be less than what NASA now spends on such functions at other NASA locations. The agency plans to use existing NASA support contracts to build the centers.

The centers will improve NASA's systems security, Strassman said, because they will be able to monitor 'everything that twitches on the network.'

The project started about a year ago, Strassman said. 'Instead of a big bang approach, we have decided to take a modular approach,' he said. Both centers will be fully operational by June 2003, he said.

The mission control centers will oversee a unified NASA computing environment that Strassman described as an information systems service utility, which will replace NASA's WANs and operate at 64-bit capacity.

'The network is the computer, and the computers are peripherals,' Strassman said. The new architecture will take advantage of the dropping price of optical fiber bandwidth, he added.

NASA executives plan to devote additional funds to network operations and to scale back resources for desktop computing, Strassman said.

NASA now spends about $1.5 billion annually on systems resources. 'We feel very comfortable with the existing IT budget,' he said.

The agency has been dogged in recent years by financial problems that have arisen from overruns in programs such as Space Station Freedom, and a prime goal is to impose financial order on operations. To do so, NASA's IT executives are implementing a consolidated financial system that will integrate 10 separate accounting systems.

That system will begin operating Oct. 1, following the laborious task of converting data from the incompatible systems to a common format, Strassman said.

The new system will use mySAP financial software from SAP America Inc. of Newtown Square, Pa., integrated by Accenture LLP of Chicago, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP of New York and Booz Allen Hamilton of McLean, Va.

The General Accounting Office and lawmakers have criticized NASA for its weak financial accounting.

Financial management

'We're all interested in making sure that NASA's financial management is first-rate,' said one congressional aide with responsibilities for NASA oversight. 'They've had some problems in the past when they were not able to say how much they spent on space station hardware.'

But the aide added it was too early to tell if that new financial system will solve the agency's problems. 'In general it is a step in the right direction.'

As NASA implements its new computer architecture, it plans to adopt smart cards for system users that will provide both physical and electronic identification.

'We are putting in the most advanced intrusion detection systems,' Strassman said. He said investigators need to generate evidence of computer breaches that is strong enough to be introduced in court.

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