The Right Stuff

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A few months ago, I wrote a piece for GOOD Magazine highlighting some of the lesser-known successes of everyone’s favorite bloated space agency. Although I intended to write about basic research, good science, and interesting pipeline projects, I ended up stuck in a vortex of awesome open-source software development and interactive art programs.

Doing my research, I came into contact with some incredibly forward-thinking people at NASA who gave me great hope for a post-Bush space administration. One of these people was Nicholas Skytland, founder of openNASA.com, an incredibly earnest, collaborative blog written by employees across the agency. At NASA, Skytland is Project Manager of the EVA Physiology, Systems and Performance Project, a program that seeks to understand human performance during Extra-Vehicular Activity (you know, spacewalks) with the aim of developing safer systems for future missions. At openNASA, he’s a blogger and a great proponent of having two-way conversations about the future of our space program.

openNASA.com is representative of a relatively new trend towards transparency within the agency, one spearheaded by plugged-in employees hell-bent on using networked technologies to interact more directly with the public. I know it’s relatively dorky at this point to talk about “web 2.0″ or “social networking” as radical tools of change, but this is NASA we’re talking about — a hugely beleaguered, bureaucratic government agency with a great deal of power. Late in the game or not, this is massive.

“We have insight into what is and could be happening inside the U.S. space program — but so do you.”

Universe: So why did you start openNASA?

Skytland: openNASA really started as a result of a number of other efforts that were already going on at the time. A number of younger people from around the agency were very interested in blogging — and some had already started blogging on their own. Many of us converged at a conference at NASA Ames Research Center on February 12-15, 2008 called the “Next Generation Exploration Conference.” As is probably typical with most conferences, the discussion didn’t really end after the formal program was over. One evening after the conference was officially over, many of the original authors of openNASA were co-working and somehow we got on the discussion of blogging. It was clear that there were a number of blogs that had been started, but there was no silver lining that held them all together. We decided that we would start a “team blog” that anyone from the agency (civil servant or contractor) could participate in. We’d do all the work involved with setting up the site so as to make it as easy as possible for anyone to be an author — and share their perspective.

We wasted no time. Fortunately, in the room were a number of web developers, coders, designers, and creative spirits (most of whom have normal day jobs as NASA engineers). Within a couple of hours we had the site designed, coded, hosted, and launched.

Ideally, we would have blogged on the nasa.gov website — but it wasn’t ready for us. Not wanting to wait, we launched openNASA as an interim solution. It truly is an experiment in what open and transparent government could look like and it’s been a learning experience ever since.

Shortly after the launch of openNASA.com, a number of our community members were invited by the NASA administrator to talk to the Senior Management Council. Our presentation has really resulted in a number of efforts around the agency [Ed: Many similar websites launched after the SMC conversation].

You may also have heard the term “Participatory Exploration.” This is something that many of the authors of openNASA feel strongly about. We recognize that we are really fortunate to have the opportunity to work at a place like NASA and we wanted to share that perspective. Maybe more importantly, we wanted to provide an opportunity for all those who do not work for NASA or one of its contractors directly, a chance to participate in the NASA mission. I recently gave a presentation on the subject.

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Universe: Tell me more about the authors of openNASA.

Skytland: There are many voices of NASA. NASA leadership, noted scientists, public affairs writers, nobel laureates, Congressional Representatives, Union leaders, your neighbor. To the average person, including our friends and relatives, the image and message gets cloudy and distorted.

This is a collaborative blog written by NASA employees across the agency, and occasional invited guests. We come from a perspective within NASA of transparency, accessibility, risk, honesty, merit, and participation. We have insight into what is and could be happening inside the U.S. space program — but so do you, and it is something to be shared and discussed. Let’s create a space program which stimulates non-governmental activity, excitement and inspiration, and which guides humanity onto a sustainable path into the future. This is the voice of promise and opportunity. This is our voice.

Universe: What has the reaction been among more traditionally-minded people within the agency?

Skytland: When we launched openNASA, we thought we might have some major resistance from within the agency. Turns out, it was just the opposite – we had a lot of support! Although NASA often gets a bad rap outside its walls, in the press, and on blogs, what we experienced was strong support for sharing our voice, our perspective and most importantly the story about the NASA mission. Yes, of course, there are many both inside and outside the community who don’t necessarily share a certain perspective of one or more of the authors on openNASA, but in general, even the most “traditionally-minded” person at NASA really wants to talk about what they do. They are passionate about what they do. They’d LOVE to tell you what they are up to. Most are so busy that they just don’t have the time to set up their own website or develop a presentation to do so. We developed OpenNASA to be an easy to use conduit for their insights. It’s a place to give NASA a voice.

When it comes to actually blogging and putting down in words what we do at NASA, that’s where I think we have the most trouble. openNASA is an experiment in communication. As Garret Fitzpatrick eloquently wrote in a post on openNASA, many are worried simply about their words coming back to haunt them. I think this is a fear that many “traditional” people have about blogging in general. We try to eliminate that barrier any way we can — by helping encourage each other, by writing policies that protect our authors from attacks, and by simply being an example of what this might look like for others.

We have also had a lot of interest from people who work on NASA communications. These people are some of the most brilliant and creative people at NASA. They have an extremely difficult job, if you consider the constraints of government communications, and have been very interested in our ideas and thoughts on how to share the NASA story.

Universe: What are your hopes for the future of NASA ?

Skytland: We see NASA as a leader in true exploration, and subsequently, science and technology. We recognize that a big issue for the United States right now is that we have fallen behind in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, and other countries have excelled in both education and industry of STEM disciplines. NASA has the ability to lead our nation in continue to innovate, to inspire, and lead the world in exploration — which is extremely important if our country hopes to remain competitive in today’s environment. Our 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.

From the openNASA perspective, blogging is only the first step and we really hope to expand the government into more interactive ways to promote transparency via web technology.

*Images courtesy of NASA’s rad new images archive!

Comments

  1. #1 Colin
    January 22, 2009

    Where on earth did you get those photos? I suspect that NASA does not use them for its open source initiatives.

  2. #2 Claire Evans
    January 23, 2009

    Both images used in this entry are from NASA’s great new image archive, NASA Images. The archive is amazingly extensive and is the result of a partnership between NASA and the Internet Archive. One could spend hours perusing the database.

    http://nasaimages.org/

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