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The Right Stuff

by Claire Evans

December 7, 2008

Three things our beleaguered NASA isn't getting wrong

NASA gets a lot of flack these days, and it's not without reason. Despite the $20.2 billion that it receives every year, two-thirds of the agency's programs are either significantly over budget or behind schedule. With the planned retirement of the Shuttle in 2010--and with no new ship ready to replace it-the U.S. will have to rely on extensive assistance from the Russian Federal Space Agency to get astronauts into space. Add to this concoction a few years' worth of P.R. disasters-from chief Administrator Michael Griffin's controversial statements on global warming to the attempted kidnapping of U.S. Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman by Lisa Nowak, the love-crazed, diaper-wearing astronaut-and the negative connotation associated with NASA seems earned.But all's not bad at our much-maligned, bloated space agency. For starters, NASA employs 58,000 Americans; not all of them are tossing taxpayer money out the window by designing dubious spacecraft and scheming to commit crimes of passion. Some of its employees are innovating exciting new programs, engaging the public, and making big plans for the future of human space exploration.Perhaps if we encourage the programs that NASA is getting right rather than criticize its plethora of blunders, we can restore some of the awe that once went hand-in-hand with space exploration. In the name of balance, here are three things that NASA is doing right.Supporting The ArtsIn 1962, NASA Administrator James E. Webb recognized that space exploration -- beyond advancing science and technology -- would inevitably inspire radical cultural change. So, he established the NASA Art Program, a little-known wing of the agency that commissions artists to present their perspectives on space missions. The list of participants is essentially a "who's who" of American artists and includes Robert Rauschenberg, Norman Rockwell, James Wyeth, Nam June Paik, William Wegman, and Annie Leibovitz.In 2001, NASA commissioned digital artist Martin Wattenberg to build Copernica (interface pictured above), a staggering database of "stellar cartography," that houses all the works from the NASA collection in a clickable universe that you can navigate to explore its archives. Copernica is a strange, beautiful, and progressive section of NASA's online presence, juxtaposing art and science to offer viewers newer, more sophisticated interpretations of space exploration.Crowdsourcing The Small StuffIn 2000, NASA conducted a little experiment in audience participation: To see if the public would help with scientific analysis, they created a site where volunteers ("clickworkers") could conduct micro-tasks that require human perception and common sense but no scientific training--such as identifying craters in pictures of the surface of Mars. The project was a moderate success: An army of clickworkers took care of routine analysis that would normally require months of work by smaller teams of scientists or graduate students.Now--in a far more fertile period for online collaboration-the program is having a more profound impact. Clickworkers are now helping to catalog images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera, locate craters on the asteroid Eros, and, soon, examine images of the proto-planets Vesta and Ceres brought back from the upcoming Dawn mission. The Clickworker program helps people feel invested in space exploration, while saving time and money better used on higher-level tasks.
Going Open-SourceAs part of a larger, agency-wide shift towards transparency--a daunting task for such a sprawling bureaucracy--NASA jumped on the open-source software bandwagon in 2006. Since then, it's released some 22 free software titles all originally designed for space mission tasks, including World Wind (see screenshot at left), a Google Earth-style 3D virtual globe that volunteer programmers are free to tinker with.There's even a group at NASA that works to connect communities inside and outside the agency to collaborate on software projects: CoLAB, as it's called, hosts a digital salon for space enthusiasts in Second Life and helms the CosmosCode project, which, when it emerges from internal alpha testing, will offer tons of free, open-source space software to a whole community of programmers, companies, and other space agencies around the world.This enterprising attitude towards open-source development is a win-win: by allowing eager geeks a crack at their code, NASA gets quickly-developed, higher-quality software -- for free. The geeks, on the other hand, get to write code for live space missions, making space exploration an increasingly participatory activity. Nicholas Skytland, a founder of, a collaborative blog written by agency employees, sums up this forward-thinking endeavor: "We've talked a lot about 'participatory exploration,' and a hope for the future of NASA is that we truly embrace a culture around 'participatory exploration' in order to leverage technologies, knowledge, and information from the public, private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and international partners to accomplish our mission."
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