How NASA maintains a global portal

How NASA maintains a global portal

The space agency delegates content and page maintenance responsibility to its branch locations

By Ted Drude

Special to GCN

NASA's home page and its news page receive updates as often as several times per day when news is breaking. The site's navigation links are at the bottom.

In recent years, as NASA has needed to gain public support to ensure the continuation of some of its programs, the space agency has turned the Web into a strategic asset.

NASA's site, at, disseminates in-depth information to the public and builds support in a way that was impossible before the Web age.

Brian Dunbar, the agency's Internet services manager, said the site posts the latest news coming out of NASA's cutting-edge research. 'We hope that by providing this information directly to the public, we will give them a sense that they are directly involved,'' he said.

Visitors typically come looking for specific information about space missions or research programs that they have heard about, often through the media. The site must appeal to and serve a broad range of users, from scientific researchers to teachers and from kids to space flight enthusiasts.

Spartan style

The home page has a clean, almost sparse appearance. NASA has engineered it for fast loading. The page, though light on graphics, is heavy on text and white space. A left-side navigation bar displays the main site links.

Best and worst features

  • +Clean site design void of clutter
  • +Comprehensive collection of information
  • with links to all pertinent sites
  • +Distributed maintenance of content down to individual offices
  • 'Lack of consistent applet support for different browsers
  • 'Comprehensive but incomplete database of still images and videos
  • 'No personalized content for regular visitors
  • 'No global navigation links from page tops

There are two rows of secondary global navigation links at the bottom of each page that would be more visible if they were moved up. The relationship between side and bottom navigation links is not always clear, although there is a site map.

The prime spot on the home page goes to a daily news story, generated by a headquarters newsroom staff. As new stories are posted, earlier ones cycle to a separate page reached by clicking on '' Dunbar said the newsroom team typically updates stories several times each day.

Below the news stories appear many links and paths for browsing. The main links offer a look at NASA's four strategic enterprises: aeronautics and space transportation technology, human space exploration, earth science, and space science. The links go to individual project pages maintained by the agency's many divisions.

Site personnel

  • Content management: Office of Public Affairs and Brian Dunbar, Internet services manager; NASA organizations maintain their own pages
  • Content production: Elvia Thompson, public affairs specialist
  • Hypertext Markup Language programming: Sudha V. Chudamani and Meng Li
  • Graphic art and task management: Michele O'Connell and Dawn Wieczorek, with some free-lance help
  • Privacy curator: Boeing Information Services Inc. of Vienna, Va.

For young visitors, there are 'NASA for kids'' links to topics such as airplanes, the Earth, planets, galaxies and space travel.
''A list under the item 'Cool NASA sites'' has information for a more general audience. And a long list of administrative links appears on the left-hand navigation bar.

The NASA site has direct links to all its branch locations. Each branch has a fair amount of latitude in defining the look and structure of its own pages, but there are common features that tie everything together.

For example, each branch section of the site posts the responsible official's name. The pages also list e-mail links for more information, suggestions or reporting problems.

NASA is up-front about its privacy policy, which is posted on a page that has a link from the home page. The policy nails down mundane details about how routine data is collected and used. It also tells how NASA handles personal data from e-mail requests and form registrations. The privacy policy sets a good example for other sites to follow.

The Multimedia Gallery is a gateway to one of the site's most ambitious projects. The gallery gives users access to vast collections of photos, videos, audio recordings and art objects that NASA catalogs.

The NASA Image Exchange project, an online collection of more than 500,000 photos and data images, taps the archiving efforts of 10 NASA centers and links them via a searchable database. There are also links to non-NASA photo sources, such as the sites of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and European space agencies.

The Public Affairs Office at agency headquarters defines the content for the main site. Dunbar has responsibility for top-level content. Other offices at headquarters and at NASA centers maintain their own pages.

Dunbar said the site draws on the headquarters newsroom for production assistance, but the equivalent of fewer than two full-time employees bear the main production load. The newsroom staff and a contractor perform technical maintenance, he said.

The total site effort depends on about 12 people, most of whom have other responsibilities and do the work part time. Headquarters' Information Technology Operations provides functions such as automated list distribution.

To deal with information overload and to make indexing possible, NASA has deliberately adopted a distributed approach to managing its Web assets, Dunbar said. Each of the 16 main branch locations, overseen by its public affairs offices, independently maintains its pages. The pages link through the main site, which serves as a portal for central access.

Coordinating the effort requires constant communication among the public affairs offices at headquarters and at the branches, Dunbar said. Web administrators from each branch hold regular monthly meetings to discuss strategies.

NASA's site receives about 90,000 page requests each day and has about 80 pages with changing content. More static pages, such as the list of NASA centers, require less maintenance than frequently updated pages, such as the home page and news pages.

Although Dunbar would not detail the site's hardware because of the government's recent hacking epidemic, he said that its multiprocessor servers run both Unix and Microsoft Windows NT. And the active pages take up about 10G of storage.

Multiple direct T1 lines provide most of the agency's Web network connections. The site's search engine, based on software from Verity Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., is tailored to search all NASA public sites. The engine currently indexes more than 600,000 files.

Dunbar said the site has been a big benefit to public affairs officials, whose audience has expanded dramatically through electronic distribution. When NASA mailed out paper press releases, postage expenses limited distribution. Now anyone with Internet access can subscribe to a NASA distribution service, which currently has 32,000 recipients.

Room to grow

Video initiatives

  • NASA Select TV channel
  • Streaming RealAudio feeds for space shuttle missions
  • Video viewing for PC and Macintosh users via CU-SeeMe software from White Pine Software Inc. of Nashua, N.H., and Mbone IP multicasting for Unix users

The distributed management approach has circumvented the need for multiple levels of approval for information posted on the site, Dunbar said.

He said there are still ways NASA wants to improve the site such as developing more reliable technology that would work well across multiple platforms and browsers.

The NASA Image Exchange project also has a long way to go before it can make even half of NASA's photo archives available online in a consistent format. And Dunbar is looking for a way to let visitors tailor news to their individual interests, as leading commercial portals do.

Ted Drude is a free-lance technology writer from Madison, Ala.

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