NASA begins to outline future with revamped advisory council

NASA to look at commercial space, IT issues

NASA began the long process of redefining some of its missions today as it added four new committees to the influential advisory group that helps guide the space agency’s directions.

The four new committees include Commercial Space, Education and Public Outreach, Information Technology Infrastructure, and Technology Innovation. The council's members provide advice and make recommendations to the NASA administrator about agency programs, policies, plans, financial controls and other matters pertinent to NASA's responsibilities.

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In the realm of commercial space, NASA has been pushed by outside experts to leave low Earth orbit flights to other aerospace firms. The Review of United States Human Space Flight Plan Committee report recently took that a step further in recommending: A new competition with adequate incentives to perform this service should be open to all US aerospace companies. This would let NASA focus on more challenging roles, including human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit based on the continued development of the current or modified NASA Orion spacecraft.

NASA still has plans to be part of the LEO area of course. Last month NASA said it would partner with the US Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a technology roadmap for use of reusable commercial spaceships.

The study of reusable launch vehicles or RLVs will focus on identifying technologies and assessing their potential use to accelerate the development of commercial reusable launch vehicles that have improved reliability, availability, launch turn-time, robustness and significantly lower costs than current launch systems, NASA stated. The study results will provide roadmaps with recommended government technology tasks and milestones for different vehicle categories.

Meanwhile in the information technology area, the Government Accountability Office recently issued a report pretty much ripping the space agency's network security strategy stating that NASA has significant problems protecting the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the information and variety of networks supporting its mission centers.

NASA did not consistently implement effective controls to prevent, limit, and detect unauthorized access to its networks and systems. The GAO said NASA did not identify and authenticate users; restrict user access to systems; encrypt network services and data; protect network boundaries; and t and monitor computer-related events. The GAO said NASA networks and systems have been successfully targeted by cyber attacks 1,120 times in the past two years. All of this despite the fact that the agency's IT budget in fiscal year 2009 was $1.6 billion, of which $15 million was dedicated to IT security, the GAO stated.

The NASA Advisory Council now has nine standing committees including: Aeronautics, Audit, Finance and Analysis, Commercial Space, Education and Public Outreach, Exploration, Information Technology Infrastructure, Science, Space Operations, and Technology and Innovation. Each committee conducts fact-finding sessions throughout the year in an effort to gain an understanding of current NASA issues and future mission implementation plans. The committees then bring this information to the full Council in order that specific recommendations may be prepared, NASA stated.

NASA is coming off one of the most challenging months in its long history. In October the space agency had a couple major successes first with the NASA LCROSS satellites successfully crashing into the moon looking for water and then the Ares X rocket launch that went off without a hitch at the end of the month. Then the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plan Committee said NASA faces significant challenges in continuing the manned space flight program.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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