NASA’s JPL Taps IT to Power Space Missions and Worker Creativity

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA turned to the cloud, analytics, big data and consumer technology to take space missions to new heights. It’s also taking innovative steps to ensure its workers can explore their creativity through programs such as ‘Brain 2.0’ and the ‘IT petting zoo.’

The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is famous for the Mars Curiosity Rover, the Explorer spacecraft, the Voyager program and countless other history-making missions. But behind all those landmark events are IT systems enabled by the cloud, analytics, big data and consumer technology.

JPL’s cloud strategy goes back six years to when CIO Jim Rinaldi decided he’d rather rent than buy cloud capabilities. Today, JPL’s cloud infrastructure includes a public, private and hybrid cloud that will all soon run from a single data center and power all the organization’s missions into space.

“One of the things in our hybrid cloud that’s going to make this so different for people involves mission work,” Rinaldi says. “To be able to provision the compute and storage resources as they need enables mission folks to work differently than they ever have before.”

[Related: The Techiest Ways NASA Flies With You Everyday ]

For example, during the launch of the Mars Curiosity Rover in 2011, JPL used Amazon’s cloud to send pictures and stream live video to the 12 million people watching the event.

“That taught us a lot of lessons. We now know how to balance our workload [and] expand our workload, based on need and we really understand content distribution when you need to have it across the world,” Rinaldi says. “I think we can take advantage of those for our next encounters and missions, whether it’s Mars or Saturn, or any other planet.”

In early 2015, JPL will launch the soil moisture active passive (SMAP) satellite, which will monitor water and energy and help improve flood predictions and drought monitoring here on earth. SMAP will use a special analytics cloud to enable workers to analyze data points without interrupting the mission.

[Related: Quick Look: NASA Orion’s Critical Test Mission]

“They have access to 3 billion data points that they can manipulate and look at,” says Tom Soderstrom, CTO at JPL. “Once the mission takes off, they can compare what it looks like when it’s flying to what it did on the ground. That’s only possible because we [have] access to the cloud.”

How JPL Helps Employees Find Inspiration in the Workplace

The IT department at JPL also gives flexibility to employees in other ways. For example, it is toying with a concept it calls Brain 2.0. The IT team imagines employees, enabled by technology, having uninterrupted think-time in creative spaces. For example, employees wearing oculus rift headsets --- which provide a 3D virtual reality environment -- could have think-time while looking at a beach scene through augmented reality.

“JPL [employs] some brilliant people and today they get 400 emails a day. They are distracted every five seconds with bells ringing and meeting reminders,” Soderstrom says. “They’re not able to get think-time.”

[Related: NASA Creates First 3D Printed Object in Space ]

JPL is also looking to consumer technology as a guide for what’s next in enterprise IT. In JPL’s “IT petting zoo,” employees can tinker with new consumer technologies like Google Glass, 3D printers or oculus rift. They can also explore a collaborative workspace called The Hub. The Hub has modern-style couches, chairs and group workspaces as well as an IT information desk and various technologies to play with. Any JPL employee can go there at any time, to get away from their desk, get some inspiration or meet privately with team members.

“We see that as a benefit for JPL [employees],” says Rinaldi. “They can get out and work where the work is versus where the IT is."

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