The Data Briefing: NASA’s New Big Data Strategy

Jun 22, 2016

Few other federal agencies deal with as much data as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Big science creates big data, and NASA manages many of the biggest science projects in world history. Even in the early days of NASA’s history, NASA pioneered new ways to create and store data. So, in the world of the cloud, Internet of Things, and intelligent agents, how does NASA deal with its big data needs?

Expedition 46 of the Soyuz spacecraft as it approaches the International Space Station (I.S.S.) for docking.

Recently, the Chief Knowledge Architect at the NASA Johnson Space Center gave a presentation about NASA’s Data Strategy. A copy of the presentation and the data strategy can be found on the Federal Software Engineers and Data Scientist’s MeetUp site. There are some great strategies and lessons learned for other federal agencies that can be used to work with big data challenges.

First, what are the challenges that NASA faces? According to the data strategy, there are four challenges:

  1. “Lack of an explicit data management framework, fragmented data lifecycle and lack of data integration;
  2. Need for new emerging data analytics technologies and capabilities to address mission specific challenges;
  3. Data expertise gap; and
  4. Need to effectively address culture and policy issues alongside technology.”

These are familiar challenges to many organizations dealing with big data. How does NASA plan to deal with these challenges?

The strategy plan has six recommendations which, to me, is a three-pronged approach. First, NASA will deal with the data itself by improving the way data is managed. NASA will establish a coordinated data architecture and create a unified data lifecycle. These first two recommendations lay the groundwork for an agency-wide data governance program.

The second prong of NASA’s data strategy is to create a Data Analytics Lab and establish a Data Fellows Program. The Data Analytics Lab will allow NASA to experiment with new data technologies and new analytical methods in pilot programs that can then be released to the agency at large. Especially interesting to me is the Data Fellows Program. Candidates for this highly-competitive program will serve 6-12 month “tours of duty” where they will work on cutting-edge solutions to specific agency challenges. It is a great way to tap into the brainpower of one of the world’s most highly-talented workforces.

The third prong is the Data Stewards program. NASA already has informal data stewards who oversee the proper management of data assets. However, by formalizing the data steward role, NASA is sending a clear message to the rest of the organization about proper data management. The Data Stewards program is a great concept that other agencies should establish.

NASA is a pioneering agency with a lot of firsts. This data strategy may not be as exciting as landing people on the Moon, populating Mars with robots, and flying by Pluto. However, good data management was and still is the key to these amazing triumphs. NASA’s data strategy is a good example of how to journey through the new world of big data management.Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends. Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. You can find out more about his personal work in open data, analytics, and related topics at All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.