NASA Information Technology Managers Brace for Budget Cuts

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SAN FRANCISCO — Ongoing budget battles pose unique challenges for NASA officials who oversee the space agency’s information technology programs, according to government and industry officials participating in NASA’s second annual information technology summit here Aug. 15-17.

“When we think about the value of information technology, it’s vast and tremendous,” Linda Cureton, NASA’s chief information officer, said. “It can be perplexing to quantify the value of information technology.”

Nevertheless, in light of anticipated budget cuts, information technology officials will have to find ways to explain the value of information technology to President Barack Obama, to the U.S. Congress and to the American public, Cureton said. NASA officials will have to demonstrate how information technology supports the space agency by strengthening relationships between customers and suppliers, assisting employees in capturing and accessing information efficiently, and increasing the flexibility of workers. “We have to step up to that complex challenge, and we have to win,” she said.

Cureton said one reason it is so hard for government leaders to recognize the value of new information technology is the long time lag between spending money on new systems and reaping the rewards. “The purchase of hardware and software often require big expenditures up front but you may not be able to see the value for many years down the line,” Cureton said. “Or, the value [of new technology] may be subtle and hard to pin down.”

The Budget Control Act of 2011 signed into law by Obama in August calls for caps on discretionary spending, which includes funding for NASA as well as the departments of Defense, Education and Transportation, to trim expenditures by $917 billion over 10 years. In addition, a group of 12 lawmakers on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is charged with identifying by Nov. 23 at least $1.5 trillion in additional spending cuts over 10 years. If that panel fails to identify those cuts or to win congressional approval of its plan by Dec. 23, government agencies face across-the-board spending cuts of $1.2 trillion equally divided between domestic and national security programs.

Budget pressures, however, are only one of the challenging issues confronting NASA’s information technology work force. In addition, recent attacks on government and private computer networks have highlighted the serious threat hackers pose to federal agencies, said Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute, a research and education organization for security professionals based in Bethesda, Md. As a result, NASA employees and other federal information technology workers will be forced to take serious steps to combat cybercrime. “And you get no new money,” Paller said. “You had all the new money for the last decade and now the money is gone.”

To effectively combat cybersecurity threats, NASA officials should identify the most important actions they need to take to improve network security. “Don’t write a list of a thousand things that need to be done,” Paller said. “Figure out the highest priority. Figure out how much risk you eliminate by taking that action. And go on to the next one.”

For starters, Paller suggested that NASA officials make sure every software application on every desktop has been patched to address known threats.

Mark Rudick, head of sales engineering for Google Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., said the challenges NASA faces in terms of computer security are similar to those faced by Google’s other customers who want to ensure that the right people can gain access to the right information. NASA also faces the challenge of making it faster and easier for agency employees to store data, gain access to information and share information throughout the 10 NASA field centers. “The ability for anyone at NASA to get to information quickly is very valuable,” Rudick said.

In addition, NASA may benefit from the adoption of new, cutting-edge technology, said Mahesh Kalva, chief technology officer for enterprise IT solutions at Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Solutions in Gaithersburg, Md. If astronauts on the international space station need a new wrench, for example, they may soon be able to use a three-dimensional printer onboard the station to fabricate that wrench. “Those kinds of technologies that are emerging will enable critical NASA missions,” Kalva said.

In spite of the obvious challenges created by budget constraints, there are opportunities as well, said Rick Martin, senior information technology strategist for Science Applications International Corp. of McLean, Va. “People who are broke tend to want to get along better,” Martin said. “Collaboration is much more attractive when you can’t afford to do what you want by yourself.”

Martin also said Washington’s budget battles pose serious problems for information technology program managers who often spend several months waiting to find out how much money will be available in a given year. Then, they may only have a few weeks to spend that money before the budget year ends. “There are probably people at this conference who still don’t know their final budget numbers for the year,” he said.