The Evolution of Technology at NASA: James McClellan with NASA
Today, I’m honored to have James McClellan on the show. James is part of the technology leadership ecosystem at NASA as a Technology Infusion Manager.
Today we discuss what NASA is, his role and the roles of the different CTOs at NASA, security concerns, the Internet of Things, evolving processes and methodologies at NASA and the influence that NASA hopes to have over future generations of scientists, engineering and developers.
We are extremely pleased to have James with us this week.
Topics we discuss:
1. What is NASA?
2. Role of the different CTOs at NASA
3. James’s Role at NASA
4. Security rules and regulations at NASA
5. Security Concerns with the Internet of Things
6. Evolving Processes and Methodologies at NASA
7. NASA’s Influence
2. Internet of Things (IoT)
4. Goddard Space Flight Center
5. Johnson Space Center
6. Juno Space Probe
7. Orion Spacecraft
8. Dr. (Wernher) von Braun
9. NASA Spinoff
10. James Webb Space Telescope
11. Lockheed Martin
14. Twitter @jsc_cto
Carlos: All right. James, tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you end up working at NASA?
James: Well, part of the reason that I ended up working here is that I live in Houston. I had worked in industry. In fact, still most of my career, two-thirds of it is in industry. There happened to be some openings at NASA. I came and applied and actually starting working for a contractor first, did a really good job. That led to an opportunity to become a civil servant where I became the first Chief Technology Officer in the IT department at the Johnson Space Center.
Then from there, I’ve now moved to an agency-level headquarters position, although I still am living at Johnson Space Center because I run an innovation lab and there is really no room for innovation labs at headquarters. It’s where most of our top-level leaders are. I need some space. I need access to scientists and engineers, so we run the innovation lab out of the Johnson Space Center for the agency.
What is NASA?
Carlos: That’s awesome. All right, so I know that there is a lot of people who think that NASA is only space exploration, which I know is a big part of it, but in broad terms, can you define what NASA is and what’s the mission of NASA?
James: The actual mission statement of NASA, it calls for us to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research. We’re mixed up in a lot of different things. Obviously, space is a big part of it. We had that tremendous success with Juno just this week. We’re making great progress on our next-generation human spacecraft, which is Orion. Unfortunately, a lot of people think NASA went out of business when we ended the space shuttle program, but nothing could be further from the truth.
We’re getting ready to really go out beyond the bounds of low-earth orbit with our new spacecraft and explore asteroids and Mars. That’s really exciting, but NASA has always had a fundamental … Even before it was NASA, it was NACA where we were doing aeronautics research. There is a tremendous amount of just commercial airline involvement and great innovations that have come from NASA over the years that make airline travel faster, safer and cheaper.
Carlos: That’s great, but just to get an idea of let’s put it into perspective, meaning when we talk, we think of NASA. We have to really think of all the scientists that could be spread around the world who have different needs. Those different needs basically, are channeled somewhat through technology.
James: Sure. Well, for instance, we have a tremendous amount of scientists also working on earth science. In addition to our space probes, a lot of the stuff that you see on earth science, global warming, those kinds of things, are fundamental research that we’ve done at NASA. We have a tremendous amount of partners in academia as well as in other commercial ventures.
Carlos: Great, great, I want to know. I’m just going to ask you a few questions that I think might be interesting for our listeners. How is it to work within NASA and work with different business units in terms of prioritizing, let’s say, new programs? I’m going back to that engineer or that scientist or group of scientists that are working on a given project. How does a given program or a given project come from the need of the scientists all the way to people in leadership to actually execute them? How does that flow work?
James: NASA is actually a pretty complicated organization. We have a variety of different missions that we’re on. As I just got through mentioning, we’ve got the human space exploration. We’ve got the science mission. We’ve got aeronautics. There is a lot of different research branches and development branches in each one of them. We’ve got the commercial space exploration branch. That’s SpaceX and some of our other partners are involved in. Each and every one of those different programs sets out what its priorities and missions are.
Then we just take it from there pretty much like you would in a corporate America environment where you’ve got your leadership teams in each one of those different groups setting what the goals are for that particular operating unit. Then it just goes on down the path through all of the scientists, the engineers, the operational people. They determine what the tasks are, and what we get to their job and we get after it.
Role of the different CTOs at NASA
Carlos: It’s interesting as you’re comparing it to corporate America. In corporate America, we’re used to thinking of a single CTO scenario. From what I understand, that’s not how it works at NASA. You guys have different CTOs. Can you explain a little bit of how that works?
James: Yeah, I can. We do have one administrator, which is Mr. Bowman. Of course, he runs the entire agency. He’s responsible to the President and to Congress. The different business units, if you would, within NASA are the various different centers. Over the fifty-something-year history of NASA, those different centers had very distinct jobs. Johnson Space Center was originally named the Manned Space Flight Center. Later on, it was named after President Johnson. Obviously, the primary function here is manned space flight.
The Goddard Space Flight Center is a science-designated center. Each one at Marshall, they have a lot of tasks, but they’re primarily working on the rocket systems there. Dr. (Wernher) von Braun was there during the development stages of early stages of NASA. They’re working on our latest rocket, which is the biggest rocket ever, which is a space launch system, bigger than Apollo 5 there.
Each one of the centers has its own unique characteristics. In the past, they were even somewhat autonomous with each other. Now, I think we’re coming more and more towards having more of a one-NASA kind of an environment, but there’s still a lot of individual things that go on at each one of those individual centers. That’s in a way like different operating units within the corporation would be a way to think about that.
James’s Role at NASA
Carlos: James, one of the things that I wanted to get into a little bit more in-depth, understanding your particular role at NASA, what is it that you do within the organization? What’s your main mission within NASA?
James: What my particular job is as the technology infusion manager is I work for the agency CTO for IT, Deborah Diaz. She reports directly to the agency CIO. Within her division, she has several different branches, one of which is the technology infusion branch, which is in essence, the CTO community. As I was mentioning earlier, each one of the centers has in the past been somewhat autonomous and so each one of the centers currently has a CIO. Each one of those CIOs has their own CTO.
In essence, what my job for Deborah is, is to run the CTO community. I’m also in charge of agency-level innovation projects. We have something that we call the T&I, which is our division Technology and Innovation division, the T&I labs where we run an annual innovation challenge, where we have an open challenge for people to bring in new ideas. We award opportunities for them to go out and explore new ideas that aren’t related to, as I mentioned, everybody has got their job.
A lot of times, people come up with great, new ideas, but because they have deadlines and jobs to do, they don’t get to explore them. Our technology challenge that we have each year allows people to bring those new ideas so that we don’t lose them and they fall through the cracks. Then finally, our group is also responsible for the strategic vision for IT for NASA. We bring that forward. It goes together with the enterprise architect’s information and that from the production side of our houses and ultimately, culminates in the strategic plan for NASA IT.
Carlos: Out of those innovation, out of those moments, have any cool projects come out?
James: Oh yeah.
Carlos: I think you mentioned once NASA Tube was one of them. Is that something that we can talk about?
James: NASA Tube is a project that I’m working on right now. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a version of YouTube but only for the internal components of NASA. That was actually something that originally started at our JPL center. We decided to bring it up to the agency level. What that allows us to do there is certain things in the federal government that we have to do on security and other requirements that corporate America doesn’t have to have.
A good example is our Section 508 requirements that we have. If we post a video, we need to make sure that that video is available to all of the people in NASA, including those that may have hearing or sight challenges. We need to make sure that our video has closed captions on them. What this product, it’s actually a Microsoft product. It allows you to submit a video. Then it generates a closed caption and searchable text behind it. Also that searchable text is editable. The great thing about it is it does that in about twice the time of what the video. If you’ve got a thirty-minute video, it cranks through all that in an hour.
James: Previously, if we were doing it the old-fashioned way, we would have to send that video out and it would have to be professionally transcribed with closed captions. It took a lot longer. It was a lot more expensive and that limited our ability to do that. With NASA Tube, anybody can whip out their iPhone. The new iPhones have 4K capability on them. They can do a video and then submit it. This gives us a lot more flexibility instead of just we’ll still be able to do or let our professional videographers do their jobs for the professional quality videos, but it’s going to let a scientist or an engineer be able to do something.
If they’re cranking something out in the lab and they want to show their cohorts what they’re doing, hey, they could take a picture of it. A picture is worth a thousand words, throw that up and share it across the NASA centers with whoever it is that they want to share it with. They can either choose to restrict it to certain individuals or they can just publish it out there for all to see. It’s fast. It’s cheap and it works great.
Security rules and regulations at NASA
Carlos: Actually, this is a good segue into my next question. Before I go to that, is that product based off a need, for example, that they can’t use, like they can’t take a picture and send it through email or let’s say, I want to send it through something that is not secure, some open method of internet communication. Is that something that you guys were worried about, so therefore, we need to have a product internally that does it?
James: Well, yeah, I think in a way it’s related to that. I think one of the things that you might be hinting around on that is a particular problem for the federal government security wise is we have a lot of security rules and regulations that we need to comply with. It’s just part of the territory. If you’re working in the federal government, you need to comply with these laws and rules. As we all know, there is a tremendous amount of new capability and that we’re certainly in a new world in the twenty-first century computing cycle here from what was previously the traditional IT world.
We’ve got all kinds of new tools out there. A lot of people want to be able to use those tools, but we cannot have NASA data out on these consumer versions of toolkits because it’s not secure enough. We’ve got laws and regulations that say that we can’t put our data out into those areas. What we do as CTOs is I mentioned that we work on these emerging technology and stuff. That’s one of the pillars of the CTO community. The other pillar is that basically, we’re the chief customer advocates for our customers in trying to make sure that they have the tools and things that they need to do.
If they see a consumer tool that really works for them, for example, Google Apps is just one example. What we did is we went out and we got Google Apps and Google was interested in being able to serve this community. They got a fed wrap certification for their environment through GSA. At the first of the year, we were able to add Google Apps as a service for inside use in NASA. That will allow us to put our NASA data into a Google-for-work environment.
James: Those are the kind of things. We have some restrictions that we have to work around because we need to make sure that our data is safe. Sometimes, that means that we can’t be at the bleeding edge of some of those new technologies because we need to wait and make sure that the security is in place first. That doesn’t stop the CTOs from going out and looking at it, but we need to make sure by the time we bring it into production, that it’s in compliance with all the rules and regulations that we need to comply with.
Security Concerns with The Internet of Things
Carlos: One of the things that I think we discussed earlier or in a previous conversation was about this in the Internet of Things type of things and how security plays a big role. Maybe I’m using the term Internet of Things in the wrong way, but I’m referring to things like e-cigarettes or picture frames that you just plug into your computer for a recharge. Those could pose a security threat to you guys.
James: Yeah, they certainly can. As a matter of fact, I lead the Internet of Things team that we’re running our investigations on. We’ve been going on that for, oh gosh, about eighteen months now with a formal process. People say a lot of things about the Internet of Things. I think the hype cycle is at its peak right now on it. It’s just white hot. It is going to be the second digital revolution out there. There is no question about it. We just got a report from Ericsson this morning saying that within the next two years, there is going to be more Internet of Things objects than there is telephones.
It’s going to be huge. Everything is going to be connected. Some of the things that you just got through mentioning, unfortunately, it also means that there is a huge increase in the attack vector from a security perspective. I happen to also be a CISSP on my security rating. These Internet of Things, it’s kind of a double-edged sword. They’re going to offer a tremendous number of benefits and value to us. At the same time, there is a lot of security challenges especially in these early days.
When we started last year, we were kind of in the Wild, Wild West. Our initial investigation was just what the heck is the Internet of Thing out there? We were seeing over fifty different protocols. It was early days. Every company was out there trying to create proprietary protocols and capture a market share. What we’re seeing now is this is one the fastest evolving technologies ever. We can already see that there is some consolidation going on. I recently took an MIT course on IoT.
That was one of the things that was reinforced there from that environment as is that we, as the consumers of IoT need to start pushing these companies towards standards so that we can one, avoid having such a soup mix of proprietary solutions out there, and two get some more security in there so that we can use these things in the government and commercial workspaces where we won’t tolerate some of the things that may be tolerated in a consumer environment. Although, we have already seen some cases where there is some smart TVs out there where the vendor was actually kind of snooping on people with those smart TVs.
We’ve seen that there is some malware in some of these devices where the chargers are associated with a USB. You plug them into your computer and guess what. They upload malware onto your computer. We really need to be careful with these things, especially in our commercial and government areas. We’ve come to the conclusion already in our investigation that we’re going to have to re-architect our networks.
Nothing short of that is going to be able to enable us to take advantage of this because the way that we’re currently configured, we’re simply not going to be able to just plug IoT devices in on our networks. There is too much of a security risk for that. We’re going to have to create particular segmented networks for these devices to live in that are a lower-trust environment than where we’re living with our other trusted environment, trusted devices on our networks.
Evolving Processes and Methodologies at NASA
Carlos: As you’re aware, there is all these sorts of different methodologies as to let’s say, executing projects. I’m really curious because we do a lot of agile work when it comes to building web applications and that sort of thing. Is there some sense of evolution in that sort of thinking at NASA or is it a very strict waterfall type of way to? I’m just going back even to this issue with IOT devices. Is it looked at in an agile way or is it looked at in a very waterfall way? Does that apply to all software projects?
James: Well, I think NASA is in the process right now probably like a lot of commercial companies in transitioning from that old, traditional IT model into the twenty-first century computing models we’ve got out there. We already have teams that are using agile processes, but it’s not all of our teams, yet. I know there is an effort underway right now to go out and look at all the different programming languages that we’re using and basically rack and stack them and say, “Okay, here’s the old ones, the obsolete ones. We don’t want to use these anymore. Cease and desist. Here’s the new ones that we want to invest in and this is the path that we want to do our forward programming environments in.”
Then there is some out there that we may need to maintain for a while for purposes, but maybe not do anymore development in those areas. We’re tackling that whole thing. One of the things that we’ve got put into our strategic vision right now is a lot more work on APIs and on micro-services out there. We think that there’s a lot of benefits to that in a couple of different ways.
One, it can allow us to even on some of our older programs, we can get some API calls in there where we may not have to rewrite some of those legacy programs, yet still get access to the data that’s in them. Then some of our newer programs just build them from the ground up. Our strategic vision points to a place where we’re trying to move our applications to the edge of our network to make those calls on restful and responsive calls out to our programs so that we can use the latest techniques for our new environment.
Carlos: It’s refreshing to hear that you guys, that NASA is really moving in that direction. I always thought of whenever I was explaining things like benefits of waterfall, I would always say. I would point to NASA in a good way, by the way, as an example. Here is why you use waterfall. If you’re building a rocket ship, you don’t do that in an agile way because agile means let’s test and fail, test and fail, test and fail, test and fail. In reality, if you think about it in a broad term or zoom out, in the end, there is some agile way of thinking when it come even to that because they have prototypes and they test and fail. There is that, a little bit of that loop of learning.
James: Part of that, too, Carlos, depends on what specific area you’re talking about. When you get over into the mission areas, and there is some things that we’ve got going out there that may be decades old, those programs that are mission critical, life and death kinds of things. Our space station has been up there for decades, now. Believe me, that code was double, triple, quadruple checked before it was ever put into use.
Those are areas where that may be some legacy code that lives on for quite some time. Over in the office automation side of the house, the more IT side of the house, that gives us the opportunity where it’s not a life or death situation and where we may be able to capitalize on the latest trends in programming much more quickly than we could in a mission area.
Carlos: Well, James, I think all this is really interesting. To me, whenever I think of what would I, if I could just handpick a place to work, for me, NASA is one of those places I’d aspire to work and actually, it leads me to my last area of the discussion. I think I didn’t prepare you for this one because it just came to me as an idea. Don’t you think that NASA overall builds like … People like in our industry, I grew up. I was not part of the era of space exploration. I was born in the ’80s, mid ’80s. It was past that, but I still had a little bit of that post-space-exploration era or beginning of post-exploration era where everybody would look at space exploration as a way to be motivated by I guess by it. Also you want to become an engineer because of that.
It was definitely something that happened to me as I was growing up. Being an engineer meant think I was closer to that idea, to that movie idea of what NASA is. I just want to get your feel of how do you think NASA should or how do you think … Maybe it’s an opinion about overall how could NASA continue to inspire the newer generations to become engineers, to become scientists, to want to work for NASA? As I said, it did for me, in a way. I couldn’t imagine, basically, working at a cooler place, if you would, than NASA.
James: Well, I will brag a little bit. I think NASA for the last several years has been chosen as the best place in the federal government to work. Believe me. When you go on tours and you go back in these labs and you see things like Robonaut, and these spacecraft, or you go over to Goddard and you see those, walk up to that clean room where they’re building these deep-space probes, it’s really inspiring stuff. I’ve had the opportunity to be on some of the teams evaluating not just IT projects, but over in our chief technologist area where we’re talking about what I call the hard sciences, the real engineering and science stuff.
They have just an amazing amount of just mind-blowing stuff going on. If you want to see some of the stuff that NASA is actually doing, we’re not allowed to promote ourselves by law, but go to the NASA website and check out Spinoffs. Every year, we publish a list of all of the technology spinoffs. You would be absolutely amazed if NASA hadn’t existed, how many things would not be in this world. It’s just absolutely amazing what these folks crack, put out, and just come up with tremendous innovations across the board through every kind of stuff you’d never think was coming out of NASA. It is.
Carlos: In a way, to me, the space age set the basis for the world that we live today. Would you agree with that?
James: Well, there is certainly a tremendous, integrated circuits all the way down to Velcro. There is a tremendous amount of stuff that we’ve done. We’re not done yet. We’re just getting started. If you’re enough of a nerd to watch the Science Channel or anything, you can just go look at that. We’ve got almost a renaissance here. We’re about to get off this planet and really go out and explore further than we’ve ever gone before. We’ve got another huge project coming up. The James Webb space telescope is going to be coming up here in the not-too-distant future.
If you know how Hubble has basically changed our understanding of man’s place in the universe, we think that the James Webb telescope is going to be just that next leap forward. Carlos, I have in my room. I have a picture of the ultra-deep field. If you don’t know what that is, the manager of the Hubble space telescope project had more time than anybody else had on the space telescope. He couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do with it.
What they did was they pointed it at this one, little, tiny, pinprick-sized part that was the darkest part of the sky. They let it sit there and run. The amazing thing was in this one, little, bitty, tiny speck of the sky when they did that time lapse what came up was six thousand galaxies in that one, little, bitty, tiny, pinprick. There is just an unbelievable amount of stuff out there and we’re just getting started.
Carlos: The big part is how sometimes it’s so big that our brain cannot even process that amount of information. It’s one of those things that if you sit down, I know we’re going away from our initial conversation, but just I’m one of those that sits down and looks to the sky and think oh my God. I get overwhelmed, of course. In half a second, I get overwhelmed to think of the it. Again, and all those things that you said like I am looking at one pixel and there is more billions, more galaxies than I can count in that pixel or literally something like that.
James, I want to thank you. This has been an amazing interview. Thank you so, so much. Once again, it’s been an honor to have you on the show. I think you were able to give us a little bit of an insight in broad strokes of what it is to work at NASA, what is the reason for NASA in terms of technology and so the technology reasons that for NASA to put it in simple terms. Once again, thank you so much.
Carlos: Now, I do have three last questions. There are three. They’re not necessarily NASA specifically, but people out there might be thinking this guy has so much experience. He is working at NASA, all this stuff. What would be a piece of advice you would give to somebody who was, let’s say, getting into college, thinking of a career and they were listening to this thing? They’re like, “I want to go work at NASA.” What should they be thinking? What does their future need to look like for them to even apply at NASA?
James: Well, that depends on whether you want to work for one of our contractors or try to become a civil servant. There is actually, intern programs that you can get into if you’re interested in becoming a civil servant for NASA. I would recommend that you look at getting into that co-op program. That gives you an opportunity to actually, come onboard as a civil servant. You need to do that fairly early in your college career if you want to get into the co-op program.
Otherwise, what a lot of people don’t recognize is that the majority of the work that’s done at NASA is actually done by contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing and SpaceX. We’ve got a bunch of other partners out there. I can’t begin to name them all. That’s another different way that you can work for NASA. We love are contractors. They pull their weight. Obviously, it’s a science and technology kind of an environment. That STEM education, that is where you need to be if you want to try to come and work at NASA.
Carlos: James, the other question that we always ask our guests is what book would you recommend on some of these subjects we discussed today?
James: Well, Carlos, one of the things that I discovered pretty early in my career was if I simply read the manual I was ahead of about ninety-nine percent of the people out there. You would be amazed how few people actually just read the manual and try to understand how something actually works, especially if you’re young in your career and you’re starting out in a technical position and you’re learning to do something. That’s really what my recommendation would be. Don’t try to click your way through something. Go read the manual. Understand how the technology actually works. Then you’ll be the stud duck.
Carlos: That’s great advice because I, for example, I am one of those that sometimes, does not read a manual. Then I’m like, “Okay, am I missing something here?” If you go back and spend the time, you’ll be far, far better off.
James: It worked great for me.
Carlos: All right, James, thank you so much.
James: You’re welcome.
Carlos: All right, James, and how can people find you? Let’s say they want to tweet at you or anything like that. Are you on Twitter?
James: Yeah, well, I’m in all of those places. I’m on LinkedIn. I’m on Facebook. I have to say that I do have a Twitter account, but I don’t use it that much anymore. If they need to get in contact with me, they can do that or they can just email at J************@NASA.gov.
Carlos: Wow, well, it’s a big one. You shared your email. We will not share that email on the show notes because it’s a private email, but you can listen to the show and you’ve got James’ email right there. We will link to your Twitter link. I just found it. Just in case people want to follow you or anything or send you a message, in case they want to get in touch. James, thank you so, so much. Once again, this has been amazing. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
James: All right, you’re most welcome. Thank you.
Carlos: Thank you.