Innovation Mandate: An Interview With NASA's CTO For IT, Chris Kemp

From a technology perspective, I see every new space craft and new mission as a new way to connect with the public.

John Foley, Editor, InformationWeek

January 3, 2011

11 Min Read

NASA's CTO For IT, Chris Kemp NASA's CTO For IT, Chris Kemp

Chris Kemp started his career 10 years ago in dot-com startups -- as chief architect of, then as CEO of property rental site -- before joining NASA as director of business development in 2006. Kemp was named CIO of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., in 2007, and in May of last year was appointed to the new position of CTO for IT for the entire space agency.

At NASA Ames, Kemp helped broker a collaboration agreement with Google that involves a public-private partnership to bring NASA data and imagery to the Web, including high-res maps of the moon and Mars. Kemp is now spearheading NASA's move into cloud computing.

InformationWeek editor John Foley talked with Kemp about entrepreneurship, innovation, and NASA's unique ability to inspire generations of people.

InformationWeek: You were an entrepreneur before you got to NASA. Do you still consider yourself one?

Kemp: Yes, and I try to bring an entrepreneurial push to the projects here at NASA. I try to build teams of high-caliber people and to protect them from the bureaucracy and make sure that they have the resources they need. I think it's been called an intrapreneur. I'm trying to replicate a lot of the things that work when starting a small business within the government.

InformationWeek: What's it like trying to attract talented people to NASA Ames?

Kemp: I would say that we are attracting a lot of talented people because of the projects that we're focused on. When I first took on the role as CIO, the organization was mostly focused on institutional projects -- e-mail, networks, IT security stuff for our center. One of the things that I'm trying to do is to really tackle some of the mission challenges at NASA, because the missions have tough problems to solve that are really kind of exciting. It makes it easier to recruit people if they're doing exciting work that's challenging. Our cloud computing project is an example of that, and our security operations center for the entire agency is an example. The more we get into supporting NASA mission projects, the easier it's going to be to attract talent.

InformationWeek: How did you make the jump from the world of startups and software development to NASA?

Kemp: It goes back to when I was studying computer engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. I met up with a gentleman at the Marshall Space Flight Center working on a project there, and he introduced me to the guy who's now the director of NASA's Ames Research Center. Pete Worden, who's our director. He wanted to recruit a few disruptive, innovative, entrepreneurial people to tackle projects in the organization. I started working on strategic partnerships.

The first project I worked on was the Google-NASA space act agreement. NASA has authority to enter into unique public-private partnerships as long as taxpayers aren't footing the bill. So we are able to, at no cost to taxpayers, create Google Moon and Google Mars and make an incredible amount of NASA data accessible to hundreds of millions of people. With the click of a mouse, you can zoom in to all of the Mars data that we have and a lot of the moon data as well. That's how I got in. When the CIO job came along I threw my name in the hat because that was a real job that had a real organization behind it and opportunities to do some of this kind of work on a larger scale.

InformationWeek: Some people point to the offshoring of tech jobs or declining enrollment in STEM education as evidence that the U.S. tech industry is in decline or at risk of being in decline. What's your view?

Kemp: I do think that we have some challenges in that area. NASA finds it challenging to recruit really qualified people in part because we're in the middle of Silicon Valley and we're not able to pay competitive wages.

I was inspired as a kid to get into engineering because of NASA. NASA is one of the few federal agencies that has a mission that captures the imagination of the public and that kids can get excited about. I don't know of a single kid who doesn't love the idea of being an astronaut. Somewhere we lose that, and what we have to do is make sure that NASA's mission is an important one. By elevating that mission of exploration and discovery, we can continue to maintain that level of excitement and kids can stay in math and science and have those skills.

In Silicon Valley, the primary motivation to work for an Internet company is you can make a bunch of money. That's unfortunate because there are other things that are important in this world, like the planet itself. If there was more focus on NASA's mission as it relates to our planet and to the basic human desire to explore, if that were more baked into our culture, we would find people were getting into science and technology and engineering because they were really interested in that voyage of discovery.

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InformationWeek: NASA has long been a place where innovation does take place in this country.

Kemp: Yes, that's very fair. There have been periods when NASA has been extremely successful at capturing people's imagination, and a lot of it relates to the emphasis that's placed on that mission. There have been times where that emphasis has been greater than others. I think it's a particularly important time now that there be an emphasis on NASA's unique ability to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers and explorers.

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InformationWeek: What's your outlook for that?

Kemp: From a technology perspective, I see every new space craft and new mission as a new way to connect with the public. We make that connection through data and visualization and information. The Internet has presented a unique opportunity to participate in connecting the public with NASA's mission, as never before. For the first time, we're starting to see data that was collected decades ago made publicly accessible on our Web site. Just as Google has made every home video ever made available over the Internet, NASA is trying to dig up that old data and make it accessible to the public. In so doing, there's a lot left to be discovered.

InformationWeek: Is there a name for the project where NASA is surfacing historical data?

Kemp: It's happening across the agency. We're working with Microsoft on a project called Worldwide Telescope, where we're putting an incredible amount of data in that free downloadable Web product. There's also the work we've done with Google on Google Earth, Google Mars, and Google Moon. A lot of this is being powered by our Nebula cloud computing platform. Across the agency we're starting to identify additional data sets that you're going to see on and on NASA Web sites.

InformationWeek: With cloud computing, do you think you're on the forefront of something new?

Kemp: I absolutely do. I see a lot of opportunities to leverage the work happening in the private sector, where NASA can take advantage of the opportunities here in Silicon Valley and in general. I see a risk as well; the government needs to be a smart buyer of these new cloud services and to be very thoughtful as we apply policies and standards, and as we begin to figure out how to procure these services in a way that preserves their on-demand nature and elasticity.

In order to do that, pilot projects and open source projects are going to be important. Nebula is open source, so the government can share the lessons learned in the technology and also in the operating model of the services we're providing. There's no cloud silver bullet; each cloud service is different and will be suitable to certain problems more than others. It's only by doing pilots that you'll identify opportunities to save more or to accelerate existing processes.

InformationWeek: You've been involved in public-private collaborations with Google, Microsoft, and presumably others in cloud computing ...

Kemp: We're talking to everybody.

InformationWeek: Can you talk about that point of intersection between the public sector and the private sector?

Kemp: NASA is uniquely positioned to collaborate with the private sector because of the Space Act agreement authority that we have. On problems that are unique to NASA, that are uniquely mission-enabling, I don't want to re-create something that Microsoft's already working on or that Google's already working on, not only because I don't want to compete with them, but because I want to leverage those technologies.

The hybrid cloud model is really suitable to NASA and its mission because we're often collaborating with universities and with international partners. The ability to take NASA data and move into, for example, an Amazon cloud or a Microsoft cloud is powerful because it makes the data accessible in an environment where you can do data processing without having to provide computer accounts to partners. What that means is taxpayers aren't paying to do background checks on people for data that's free and in the public domain. We're also not paying for infrastructure to be procured and deployed. We're simply giving them access to data in an environment where they can work with it.

InformationWeek: What was your experience as an entrepreneur?

Kemp: I really enjoyed being an entrepreneur, and it's one of the things I enjoy about NASA. We have so many smart people I'm able to tap into here. The experience as an entrepreneur is you have to take a tough, interesting challenge, there has to be a market for it, you have to build a great team, then you have to believe in it and support it. Those lessons apply within the government as well. You just have different mechanisms for funding the projects. You're not really hiring people as much as pulling them from different areas of the organization. You're not firing people as much as moving them out of your way. There are a lot of parallels between creating innovation within the government and a startup.

InformationWeek: Do you think today's startup community in Silicon Valley presents more challenges than it did a few years ago?

Kemp: I'll tell you one thing, if you're starting a company in Silicon Valley now and you're not putting your infrastructure in the cloud, you're not going to get funded. To the extent that what we're doing in government is the right thing to do, it's certainly being validated here in Silicon Valley in startups. No VC is going to give you money to buy a bunch of hardware. They're more interested in investing to develop a unique service or product, and getting the hardware on a monthly basis as a service. We're putting that model to use at NASA.

InformationWeek: Do you think the technology brain trust and innovation are working in support of the U.S. space program or are you concerned?

Kemp: Over the last 10 years or so, a lot of the expertise has moved to subcontracts. It does seem like as we began to outsource our computers and the IT, we have lost a lot of the competencies in some of these critical areas of IT, and I think the pendulum needs to swing back the other way. In order to be smart buyers of these technologies, in order to put them to use in missions, we need to have those skills working for taxpayers.

John Foley is editor of InformationWeek Government.
To find out more about John Foley, please visit his page.

About the Author(s)

John Foley

Editor, InformationWeek

John Foley is director, strategic communications, for Oracle Corp. and a former editor of InformationWeek Government.

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