[Last week’s launch of the new International Space Station (ISS) Photosynths was the result of 18 months of dedicated work by a great team of people across the Agency and at Microsoft. Having played a role in facilitating the collaboration, I thought I’d invite some of the team members here on my blog to share their personal recollections of how it all came together. The project serves as a good example of how NASA succesfully collaborates with private industry to innovate ways of bringing space exploration to the public. Reading through the coverage on some of the tech blogs here in New Media Valley, there seems to be a healthy appetite for more innovation in this space (e.g. TechCrunch, Gizmodo, Ubergizmo). Adam Sheppard, whom I first met back in 2006 when he was working with the Photosynth Team at Microsoft Live Labs, offered to start off by sharing his experiences working with NASA on this project.]
By Adam Sheppard
In October 2006 I was sitting in my office at Microsoft trawling through a backlog of email and voice messages. It had been a busy couple of months leading up to the Technology Preview of Photosynth at San Francisco’s Web 2.0. We’d brought the house down with our on stage demonstration of Photosynth’s ability to take a large number of digital images and automatically assemble them into a high resolution, 3D environment that anyone could explore at home from within their web browser.
Around the same time, Chris Kemp (Currently CIO at NASA Ames) had just joined the Agency and was leading their business development efforts to seek out new and emerging technologies coming out of the private sector that could help NASA’s mission. He had seen the Photosynth demo and was eager to learn more about what he’d seen. He was full of ideas and saw the potential for Photosynth to bring the public closer to the space program than they had ever been before. They could follow in the tracks of the Mars Rovers, see every nut and bolt of a shuttle on the launch pad and experience first hand life onboard the International Space Station (ISS). At Microsoft Live Labs we were bringing some of the top computer scientists in the world together with talented engineers to explore new ground on the web. We couldn’t have asked for a more kindred spirit than the men and women of NASA who, through their own genius and engineering skills, were exploring our universe for the benefit of mankind.
Throughout 2007 we began planning and experimenting with images provided by NASA. Together with Microsoft Researcher Drew Steedly (one of our lead scientists on Photosynth) we visited Kennedy Space Center as preparations were underway for Shuttle Endeavor STS-118’s mission to the ISS. Chris had arranged unprecedented access to for us to photograph and document the Shuttle as tiles were being replaced, in the Vehicle Assembly Building, and on the launch pad itself. We were really eager to get some aerial shots of the shuttle awaiting launch, and Drew was lucky enough to sit with a SWAT team in one of those ‘Men In Black’ NASA helicopters as they flew a security fly-by around the shuttle on the pad, producing some amazing 360 degree shots we would later include in the synth. (video)
For the launch itself, we sat with the families of the astronauts, and one couldn’t help but remember the footage of the Apollo missions with people watching from the same bleachers as their loved ones journeyed to the Moon. A few days later, back in Seattle, we were proudly sharing our unique stories with our colleagues, when a call came in that had us jump into action. Since the Columbia tragedy occurred three years prior, many new safety procedures were instituted to help ensure the safety of the crew. One such measure was the detailed inspection of the underside of the shuttle from the ISS using both photography and a laser scan to assess any potential damage. Some damaged tiles had been found on Endeavour while in orbit and NASA was scrambling to make a decision on whether they should attempt a repair. During our previous discussions with NASA engineers, the idea of using Photosynth for safety procedures had been discussed and this was the perfect test case for us. Each tile is unique, carefully cut and individually serial numbered before being adhered by hand to the underside of the vehicle. Typically a specialist would have to trawl through thousands of close up images, cross-referencing against plans to visualize where on the shuttle the particular tile was. To help the specialists, we took all the images downlinked from the ISS while it was still in orbit, and used Photosynth to reconstruct the bottom of the shuttle, automatically placing the images together. We were all amazed at the results as we zoomed into the damaged tile. And while the decision had already been made to proceed without a repair, the value of this new technology had certainly been demonstrated.
Shortly afterwards I found myself at NASA headquarters in Washington DC demonstrating the synths to the Associate Administrator for Space Operations, William H. Gerstenmaier. He immediately saw the potential to share life onboard the ISS using Photosynth, and we soon found ourselves on our way to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to help train the astronaut on creating a full-size synth of the International Space Station. (video)
As we worked with the astronaut trainers, we soon realized that there were some unique challenges to consider in zero gravity. For example, Photosynth makes some assumptions on which way is ‘up’, but when you’re floating in space there is no ‘up’. With barely enough room to stand up, and every available space full of equipment, we also had to consider what technique would best capture both the panoramic views and detail shots that would lead to a successful synth. Towards the end of the day we got to meet some of the astronauts being trained on emergency procedures on a life-sized mockup of the Shuttle and finally had the chance to sit in a real Russian Soyuz capsule also used for training.
Needless to say it was my life long dream to be crawling through a space station and meeting the men and women who work tirelessly behind the scenes at NASA.
I personally moved on to other projects mid 2008, just when the flight plan for the new ISS Photosynths was coming together. All I can say is the resulting synths have turned out better than I could have ever imagined. I’m delighted to think that somewhere there’s a child exploring them right now who will one day walk on the surface of the Moon or even Mars.
Openness and Innovation – We vs. I
You probably sensed a lot of “passion” in my first post, and this is exactly what makes NASA so cool. It’s what we all share for what we are doing here at NASA — it’s what brought me here and why this is a great time to be at NASA, at Ames and in Silicon Valley and to be part of this incredible team of people. There has been a lot of discussion about the role of the team (We) versus the role of the individual (I) and what a Blog is, and how it relates to Center and Agency policy. Perspectives shared on a personal blogs by a public officials raise many questions for bureaucracies designed for consensus-based decision making and diffused responsibility. When a public official says something on a blog, does this reflect public policy, or the opinion of the public official? This topic deserves much more time and space, but others have been thinking about the issues presented by blogging, including David Wyld at the IBM Center for The Business of Government at SLU, who recently published The Blogging Revolution: Government in the Age of Web 2.0. What I will add to the conversation today is that one individual in an any large organization will not accomplish anything significant. Teams can make significant things happen.
Standing On the Shoulders of Giants
I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to contribute to NASA. For me to even be able to talk about a personal vision for NASA’s future on the web would not have been possible without the passion and dedication of several generations of my colleagues, both here at NASA Ames and at our other NASA centers around the country. I’d like to acknowledge a couple comments from my colleagues. One was from Brian Dunbar, NASA’s Web Manager in Washington D.C. Another was from George Alger, who managed the people that now comprise most of the IT organization at Ames. Both have dedicated their careers to NASA and have built great teams and solid infrastructures. Brian and his team brought www.nasa.gov from this to this since 2003. George and his team built a solid infrastructure at Ames that was ahead of its time (in fact, the logical zoned network architecture George built at Ames five years ago is the “to be” state for the rest of the Agency over the next five years). The comments from George, who retired last year, and from Brian at NASA Headquarters remind me of how fortunate we are at NASA to have a culture that welcomes new ideas and diversity. I can assure you that Pete Worden and the leadership here at Ames have fostered this environment.
Collaboration with Microsoft and Concerns about Open Standards
While much of NASA’s data is technically available to the public, in many cases it’s far less accessible than it could be. Making NASA content accessible in platforms like Microsoft World Wide Telescope and Google Earth make content far more accessible to a much greater audience of people. It should be noted that all of the data will be accessible through open, public APIs, and in both of these examples Microsoft and Google have reimbursed NASA for the time and resources spent translating and hosting the data for their platforms.
To be clear: the primary purpose of this blog is to share information, ideas and have a conversation that will lead to better and more informed decisions as we forge ahead into this new era of government in the age of web 2.0. In its charter, the Space Act of 1958, NASA is required to make its data available to the public to the greatest extent possible.
In 1969, America watched on television as NASA landed on the Moon. In 1997, America downloaded “live” images of Mars on the Internet. Ten years from now, how will America experience and participate in the new era of space exploration? How will NASA leverage zettabytes of data to the benefit of humanity?
This is the intro of a white paper I am currently working on. In this white paper I am taking a look at NASA’s current external facing web presence, and with an outlook of what space exploration and the web might look like 10 years from now, describe how I think NASA should re-architect itself in order to fully leverage the web as platform and take the lead in open, transparent and participatory space exploration and government (previous post).
I am reminded again of this intro while reading our announcement today – we’re teaming up with Microsoft to make a universe of data available to the public.
A little over 2 years ago, in my previous role as strategic business development lead here at NASA Ames, I negotiated the NASA Google collaboration. At the time, I aspired it to be the first in a series of Space Act Agreements NASA would sign with companies that share my vision to make NASA’s data – and America’s investment in space exploration – more accessible to the world on the Internet. Having since moved on to become the NASA Ames Chief Information Officer, today’s announcement of our collaboration with Microsoft – which we worked on for over 18 months – signifies another exciting step in this direction.
Moving towards a web of data
Working with partners such as Microsoft, Google, and Cisco to share our data with the world is part of a larger strategy that ties in with the next evolutionary phase of the web as we move from a web of linked documents to a web of linked data. These last few weeks I have been excited to read about our new Federal CIO Vivek Kundra and his plans to establish Data.gov to provide the public with access to all federal information that is not private or restricted for national security reasons. As I said two years ago, NASA has gathered more data about the solar system than any other agency in the world, and I look forward to working with Vivek and our team at NASA to increase the public accessibility of this data.
Developing a new space data architecture
Our agreement with Microsoft is unique in the sense that we will host the NASA data here at NASA Ames (over 100 terabytes) and serve it on the web through the WorldWide Telescope (WWT) platform. In a sense, we are using the context rich environment of WWT through our partnership with Microsoft to provide our audience a window into the universe of data we have gathered and continue to gather with our satellites and telescopes.
This data will be hosted on a new cloud platform built on open source technology that was specifically designed to host vast quantities of scientific data. The platform will enable scientists to build applications on a common, secure framework. Several new pilot projects built on this platform will be coming out in the weeks and months ahead, so stay tuned…
The night sky is essentially a database, crammed with information in the form of electromagnetic radiation, known more generically as light.
Inspired by President Obama’s recent call to Bring Government into the 21st Century:
Bring Government into the 21st Century: Use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. Appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure the safety of our networks and lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices. http://www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/technology
…and his memorandum stating his objectives for Transparency and Open Government:
My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government. www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment
…I figured it was time to start a new blog and a conversation about NASA’s future on the Web.
Let me start with a brief introduction of myself. I am the Chief Information Officer at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Being the CIO of a NASA field center means I am responsible for most of the IT infrastructure (networks, datacenters, systems, etc.) here at NASA Ames, and several NASA-wide services, including the NASA Security Operations Center. Before becoming CIO in 2007, I lead the strategic business development office at Ames where we forged several innovative new partnerships for the Agency (for example with Google, which made it to the news here and there). Prior to joining NASA, I helped create a number of cool businesses including Classmates.com and Escapia. I am 31 years old, and am the youngest member of the Senior Executive Service.
What do I plan to talk about?
I will talk about NASA as an agency with its own set of challenges and opportunities. I will talk about the “cloud”, and how NASA is pioneering Federal Cloud Services. I will talk about tools. Like this blogging webapp that powers blogs.nasa.gov and that I use to write these blog posts online.
I will talk about the web as a platform… and how NASA will use this platform to share our data with the world.
I will talk about Silicon Valley… about new partnerships that we are forging here. I’ll give you my thoughts on how we are teaming up with some of the larger companies here in the Valley to syndicate one of NASA’s greatest resources, our scientific data and our out-of-this-world images and videos. I’ll talk about government policy, how it effects NASA, and discuss ways NASA as an agency can become more transparent by adopting new policies or revising existing ones.
I will talk about NASA Ames because there are a lot of great developments going on here, some of which we are executing as pilot projects for the entire Agency, and perhaps soon the entire Government.
Many interesting developments are going on all around the world, in many different disciplines, and it is by leveraging and correlating these at NASA that we will succeed in weaving NASA and space into the web and securing space and NASA as an instrinsic part of humankind’s scientific and cultural exploration of the 21st century. A quick example in case here: While NASA is actively engaged in testing the first deep space communications network modeled on the Internet, Google’s Chief Technology Advocate Michael T. Jones at the recent AGU meeting in San Francisco advocates new models for sharing scientific data.
Moving forward, as more of us join the conversation here on blogs.nasa.gov, I can see a platform emerge where our relationship with the American public, our (potential) global audience of 1 billion connected people and counting, and our constituencies (scientists, engineers, enthusiasts) will become a collaborative one.
My vision for NASA’s future on the web is that of an open platform. A platform to share and host data, a platform that will leverage our data in new ways, for developers around the world to tap into our datasets, for the public to learn about NASA, and for scientists to collaborate. By opening this personal voice, I look forward to contribute my enthusiasm to this endeavour.
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