The Economist recently conducted a panel featuring business leaders discussing consumer driven IT. One of the Economist’s panelists was Dr. Alan Weston, Director of Programs at NASA Ames Research Center. He shared several innovative ways NASA is using consumer driven technology to advance space exploration, while making satellite R&D much more cost efficient.
Several things stuck with me after watching the Economist’s interview with Dr. Weston. In the era of consumer driven IT, it’s hard to imagine any major institution shying away from social media as a means to engage its audiences and promote its mission. But American Astronaut and Commander of the International Space Station Douglas Wheelock was reluctant to use his Twitter account to share his experiences in space. The reason: He was conflicted about appropriateness, balance, and the integration of his personal social network with his job.
That was 2010, and not even 12 months later, NASA’s social media status has lifted off (pun intended). Today, NASA has more than 100 Twitter handles, and space agency personnel are active members of every major social network. NASA’s principal Twitter handle, @NASA, has more than 2.2 million followers, and is growing by 400,000 followers per day. I’d call that warp speed.
Now NASA is taking things a step further by capitalizing on consumer driven technology for applications in space. Testing on both the International Space Station (ISS) and in-house at the NASA Ames Research Center has demonstrated that the same smartphones consumers buy at their local electronics store can yield truly astonishing reductions in the cost of space applications. As a result, NASA is now exploring the use of smartphones as small spacecrafts.
Spacecrafts built the traditional way require highly specialized technologies that must be shielded from solar radiation and extreme temperatures encountered in space. The engineering and development process is time-consuming, incredibly expensive and requires manufacturing of costly custom components. And in the end, the crafts lack the processing power of even the simplest consumer smartphone!
Dissect any smartphone today and you’ll find it has most of the functionality a spacecraft requires. It knows which way is up or down. It knows where it is in a 3-D space. It has a built-in high-resolution camera. It was designed to handle multiple wireless radios (4G, WiFi, GPS), Web browsing, multiple inboxes, multimedia streaming and custom apps. And it has a high speed processor with lots of on-board application memory and data storage.
In fact, according to Dr. Weston, the processor in a smartphone is 100 times more powerful than almost every spacecraft now in orbit. By using consumer driven technologies, NASA can build satellites that cost as little as $3,500, develop them faster than ever before and still end up with a spacecraft brimming with computing power. Compare that to the development cost of the first American communications satellite, Telstar, which was estimated at $500 million — and that was in 1962 dollars.
Innovating around consumer driven IT fundamentally changes the economics of space exploration, where hardware costs are gutted and space becomes an agile software environment. The availability of the Android source code lets NASA (or any organization) endlessly customize the smartphone platform. And because the platform is open-source, anyone — including the public — can develop software to be used in NASA experiments.
These cheaper, more powerful, smaller, flexible satellites have NASA rethinking the role of a satellite. Mission control can remotely operate the smartphone-enhanced satellites, for example, to perform inventory and environmental surveys on the ISS. That way, astronauts can spend more time conducting science experiments and other work, instead of performing routine maintenance.
To bring this down to Earth, what does NASA’s use of consumer driven IT in space mean to you? Well, if NASA can leverage IT consumerization to build state-of-the-art spacecraft for a pittance, relatively speaking, imagine what you could do with it in your organization.