28 July 2021

NASA: the digital future of space exploration

Ron Thompson
NASA
8 min
The US space agency is part way through a digital transformation that it hopes will thrust it towards the future. We talk to NASA CDO Ron Thompson

NASA is a young federal agency with fewer than 100 birthdays under its belt. That modernity ought to be a launchpad fit for digital transformation. But the organisation that first put a man on the moon and has continued to lead space exploration in the intervening 60-odd years is travelling light when it comes to legacy tech baggage.

Ron Thompson is NASA’s chief data officer and deputy digital transformation officer. He explains that, while NASA is a relatively ‘new’ agency, many of its operational and organisational models were passed down from existing agencies at its inception. “The way the agency works is really routing physical paper artifacts, for different activities and a lot of that culture was based around routing mail,” Thompson explains. “It’s mail codes how the organisations operate and how systems are designed to support the agency”

It’s little surprise then that Thompson is an advocate for changing cultural and workforce norms in order to usher in a digital transformation programme. “It’s really looking at the enterprise and working holistically, finding areas of opportunity to share and breaking down those mail code barriers and the system barriers that were in place based on those mail codes, interoperability is the name of the game.”

The digital transformation team Thompson is part of is “small but mighty”, more akin to a university than a big federal agency such as the Department of Defense. NASA itself is structured into three domains: human exploration, science and research, and aeronautics. “If you look at how those cultures have derived, what we’re seeing is world class instantiations of things, but they were never designed to operate and interconnect and interoperate as efficiently and effectively as possible, hence the opportunity to transform.”

That means Thompson and his small but mighty team of five need to look not at how NASA’s systems are operating but at how NASA itself is operating. “That’s really the core tenet of our work, to examine the operating model and look for areas of transformation. We’re not doing digital transformation for digital’s sake. We’re doing it to ensure we have mission outcomes that absolutely advance the work.”

There is a realisation from senior leadership that the agency cannot continue to operate under its current constraints and for that Thompson’s team has been charged with streamlining the complexity of missions. Those missions have become increasingly diverse, with trips to Mars and resupply cargo to the International Space Station continuing through Covid. Meanwhile, the agency’s resources are coming down.

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We’re not doing digital transformation for digital’s sake. We’re doing it to ensure we have mission outcomes that absolutely advance the work
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Ron Thompson
Job Title, Company
CDO
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Digital transformation is unlocking the door for a massive future
Author name
Ron Thompson
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CDO
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We’re looking at doing a digital twin for our Orion mission, the next man mission to the moon. We want to set that up to test our common models and use agency-wide standards using model-based systems and engineering across the agency
Author name
Ron Thompson
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CDO

For answers, Thompson has looked to the private sector to see what can be learned. It is, Thompson admits, “very much ahead of the federal sector in the chief data officer role and where that sits.” To that end, Thompson sees opportunities to increase hindsight, insight and foresight. Part of that is changing the hierarchical structure of the agency from top-down to a combination with bottom-up.

“The young workforce demands transparency and they demand to have information available to them to advance their work. The opportunity is right in the middle. That’s why in our culture we really have to explain what we’re trying to solve. For us, digital transformation is unlocking the door for a massive future. But we also need to gravitate around why we need to change and how.”

All this must happen while missions continue to launch. Nothing can stop during the transformation, which will be integrated into the critical day-to-day work of NASA. Thompson has done his reading. “If we look at the studies, we know that 70 percent of these efforts fail, so we do not want to be in that category. We want to learn and iterate but we also recognise that is high risk. When you prototype things that are different, it’s high risk and great value, great reward, great upside, but it is something different. The opportunity is to really integrate this across the agency.”

One area NASA is looking to improve is in process transformation – financial, travel and so on. The processes must be repeatable across all divisions of the organisation and easily understood. Thompson is using robotic process automation (RPA), which he describes as “the most mature area where we’re seeing value in digital transformation.” The value comes in freeing up time to work on “more meaningful, challenging work”.

But technology at NASA doesn’t just mean back office functions. “We’re looking at doing a digital twin for our Orion mission, the next man mission to the moon. We want to set that up to test our common models and use agency-wide standards using model-based systems and engineering across the agency.” That digital twin can be used to analyse safety for mission insurance. AI is also being employed to ferry information securely between systems in a cloud network and to improve astronaut communication using natural language processing (NLP).

“We’re setting up our data-driven decision lens on how we visualise our data across NASA. That’s true for mission data. That’s true for back office data. That’s true for HR data. We’re setting up that visualisation platform that is a consistent look and feel but it also links into our data sources on the back end consistently through APIs.”

There’s also an enterprise data platform with an analytics capability  to deliver “power-driven data decision making” enhancing veracity, quality and consistency. This platform also holds the key to partnership collaboration with digitally native communication being a core goal, including virtual and augmented reality solutions for engineering projects.

“That,” says Thompson, “is a real advantage of NASA because we’re very collaborative. I like to describe it as a guild. We have multiple guilds through the organisation coming together and working on solving a specific problem. We call it ‘swarm innovation’ – it’s what we’re using to bring communities together, to share and advance their work in an agency-wide perspective.”

It sounds impressive, but these high-value projects represent just six months or so of launches. Thompson estimates that there are around 35 more for next year, bridging process transformation, AI/ML and data collaboration. “We’re not doing digital for digital’s sake – we’re actually taking a look at our business model and how NASA operates and impacting mission value.”

The end goal? “What we’re gravitating towards is improving our pace of delivery,” says Thompson. “If you look at pace of delivery for launches, pace of delivery for robotic missions, pace of delivery for science and research studying climate, pace of delivery for everything we do in the organisation.

“The big play here is for digital transformation to be the integrator across the agency, to take that enterprise perspective, to see where the common functionalities and common pain points exist and to look at where we can bring enterprise solutions to resolve these. People are getting behind this and we have a goal of increasing our pace of delivery over the next three to five years by about 25 per cent.”

End goals in digital transformation tend to be speculative. There’s a notional idea of progress with a view to revising systems and processes as new technologies and ideas emerge. But NASA is an organisation that prides itself on having big dreams with definitive end points and its digital transformation is no exception. “We do not want this to be an effort that extends into perpetuity,” says Thompson. “We’re successful when everything the IT shop does is baked into everything. We need to remove the barriers of entry for our work. We’re putting ourselves out of business. We need to change that mindset and culture so that everything we do is inculcated and infused right out of the gate. We need to be the instigators. We must align.”

Whether internally or working with partners, Thompson sees this “alignment opportunity” as a way to stop multiple parties working independently on what is, essentially, the same problem, instead coming together and achieving more. “Maybe it’s smart procurement, maybe it’s smart designs, maybe it’s the future of work. And what does NASA look like in a hybrid environment where we have a virtual presence and a physical presence onsite? What does that experience look like from the user perspective? Is it cumbersome? We’re thinking about these things and how they interoperate and interconnect. We’re thinking there is a time – we’re not sure when yet – where this group is, everything this group does, is just naturally, organically flowing with everything we do.”

That’s not to say NASA doesn’t have some timelines in mind. Thompson thinks there are milestones that are “absolutely doable” in three to five years. “I see a world where we have online systems that can tell us how all of our projects are working, how everything is integrated and interconnected, how we have real time access to a decision lens for project reviews, for safety reviews, for performance reviews. Everything we do. It’s very integrated.”

It’s an ambitious deadline given a “paper mentality” still exists in pockets of NASA. But Thompson thinks breaking down barriers, moving away from the mail code system and introducing a culture of collaboration and “a single source of truth” is entirely possible within the timeframe.

“I’m seeing a modern, immersive world,” Thompson says, “that can use our technology. It’s crossing the barriers. We need to open with transparency that has the right controls and security around them, but that information has been liberated across the organisation and is accessible and absolutely helps with our hindsight, insight and foresight. At that point, we’re ready to answer all the questions.

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