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Interview: NASA and the emerging space economy

The Big Smoke spoke to Jason Crusan about how NASA uses data to enable projects. Mr Crusan is director of Advanced Exploration Systems, a division of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, and is speaking at ADMA’s Global Forum this month.



TBS: Could you tell us a bit about how NASA is enabling projects through innovative technologies?

Jason Crusan: We design for change. Many projects are started 10 or 20 years before they are scheduled to fly. So, if you consider the technological breakthroughs we’ve seen in the last two decades, we wouldn’t want to lock ourselves into 2017 technology for a 2027 mission. We also would not wait until 2025 to build a space suit for a mission in 2027. We must make informed, early investments to drive innovation, while designing with the knowledge that breakthrough technologies and new scientific discoveries could have an impact.

My division, Advanced Exploration Systems (AES), drives some of the newest efforts to extend human presence beyond low-Earth orbit. AES develops and tests prototype spacecraft systems, advanced propulsion systems, life support systems, and habitats that will form the basis for future human spaceflight missions throughout the solar system. We launch dozens of pieces of hardware each year, and many of our prototypes end up on the International Space Station for demonstration and testing.

Our portfolio is strengthened by the partnerships we have with U.S. industry. They generally have more money to invest in technology development than NASA does, so when we discover an innovative commercial technology that can be applied to human spaceflight, it’s a win-win. We benefit from their research and development, and they benefit by increasing their stakes in the emerging space economy.

One example is a public-private partnership we entered to investigate the feasibility of expandable habitats in space. The company, Bigelow Aerospace, proposed a concept that they built based on a 1990s NASA design that we licensed to them.

In May 2016, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was successfully launched aboard a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station to demonstrate expandable structures for deep space habitats. Expandable habitats are designed to be packaged into a small volume for launch, but provide greater volume for living and working in space once expanded. BEAM was berthed to the space station for a two-year demonstration and analysis. The primary goals include characterizing the deployment process and the module’s structural integrity, and measuring the internal thermal and radiation environments during this test period.


TBS: What do you wish the public understood about NASA and its approach to digital?

Jason Crusan: NASA missions are collecting and compiling hundreds of terabytes of information every hour. We are committed – and obligated – to making our data, software, and tools available to the public. The obligation is legal, but the commitment is because we know placing the data in the hands of the public will spur innovation on planet Earth. With hundreds of thousands of web pages dating back to the mid-1990s, the migration to digital was natural. It also improved our ability to collaborate between the 10 NASA centres and with our industry, academic and international partners.

For these reasons, NASA was an early government pioneer in the migration to digital. Digital data improves analytics and supports our primary conduit of mission data to the world – the internet. When the U.S. government established a digital strategy in 2013, NASA was already there, but it did help us to improve our approach, by focusing on how we develop our information, how we present it, and what platforms we use. The Digital Strategy Report can be found online at www.nasa.gov/digitalstrategy

Expanding NASA’s Data Inventory – On Data.gov there are 70,320 dataset results found for “NASA”. NASA continues to expand this through collaboration across the agency and through our customer engagement methods. NASA has enriched the data by applying categories as seen on http://data.nasa.gov/.

Engaging Customers – beyond our significant online and social media footprints, NASA engages with the public through open data and open source software. Two platforms, nasa.gov and code.nasa.gov, serve as the home for the agency’s customer engagement efforts. NASA actively uses GitHub to engage developers and collaborate with the public on open source and open data efforts. Additionally, NASA requests feedback via comments on Open.NASA.gov and NASA’s Digital Strategy website for data sets or digital information the public finds most valuable. Developers, technologists, entrepreneurs, citizen scientists and many others can contribute directly to the exploration of space and Earth by helping to create new ways to leverage NASA data.

The NASA API portal makes NASA data and imagery accessible to application developers. The catalog is growing, and currently includes Astronomy Picture of the Day, Asteroids (Near Earth Object Web Service), EPIC (Deep Space Climate Observatory, DSCOVR’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera), EONET ( Earth Observatory Natural Event Tracker), Earth (Landsat 8 Images), NASA Image and Video Library (images.nasa.gov), Mars Rover Photos, Patents, Sounds (beta), SSD/CNEOS (Solar System Dynamics/ Center for Near-Earth Object Studies), Techport (technology development), and Vesta/Moon/Mars Trek Web Map and Tile Service.

ISS Live! API and ExoAPI are also notable datasets. Thousands of data points are downloaded every minute from the Station, and ISS Live! makes a broad set of that data open and accessible. ExoAPI is an ongoing project that extends the accessibility of exoplanetary data by providing an easy to use RESTful API.

NASA Images –  is a new central location for NASA images and video. I wanted to mention the Red digital cinema camera, providing the Space Station with the highest resolution, high-speed digital motion imagery camera ever flown in space.   The Red camera can shoot up to 6K Raw at multiple frame rates.  This is 6 times the resolution of 1080P HD video.  The RAW format allows for very high dynamic range, meaning the camera can handle very bright and very dark content in the same scene.  This is the same camera used for Hollywood films and Television programs like “The Hobbit” and “House of Cards”. The camera has been used for payload principal investigators as well as documenting life on the space station and spectacular Earth views. This imagery is free for use by anyone unless it was shot for a commercial payload or principal investigator.


  • The NASA app
  • NASA Spinoff
  • NASA Visualization Explorer
  • NASA Television

In addition to apps, other downloads for the public can be found at the top of every page of NASA’s website. Also, there are links to follow NASA through Social Media, NASA Socials, NASA Blogs, Opportunities to Get Involved, and Spot the Station. NASA’s social media presence is quite noteworthy among government agencies (nearly 25M Twitter followers, over 25M Instagram followers), and our website continues to win a variety of awards for content user appreciation.


For the last 40 years, robotic missions have been returning data about our solar system that inform human spaceflight planning. Validation of available resources beyond Earth, for instance, has been a pivotal discovery in the last decade that has influenced how we plan for deep space missions.


TBS: What role does data play in your day to day role with NASA?

Jason Crusan: We maintain an immense number of databases containing images, scientific data and products, and lessons learned from missions and programs, in addition to the vast amount of NASA websites and communications channels. To deal with its ongoing challenges related to acquiring, processing, securing, and sharing massive quantities of data, NASA has been a leading innovator in supercomputing, developing tools and processes that have been applied widely for commercial use.

For the last 40 years, robotic missions have been returning data about our solar system that inform human spaceflight planning. Validation of available resources beyond Earth, for instance, has been a pivotal discovery in the last decade that has influenced how we plan for deep space missions.

Our orbiters, landers, and rovers on Mars have revealed important data about the Red Planet’s atmospheric and surface conditions. The atmosphere is rich with carbon dioxide, which future astronauts can harvest for breathable air, saving precious cargo space that might otherwise be used to transport oxygen to the surface. Oxygen also is the primary fuel for rocket engines, so the ability to harvest and store it in large quantities could mean that astronauts will be generating the key ingredients for propellant that can be used to get them off the surface when it’s time to return to Earth.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and other lunar orbiting missions have given us an idea of how much water is on the moon. In the next few years, a fleet of CubeSats will be getting more defined data that will improve our understanding of water quality, abundance, and locations. As we prepare for missions in regions around the moon, this knowledge could provide options to make missions safer and more efficient.

Data from technology demonstrations help us to validate modelling techniques. Before we launch major hardware systems to space, we test on the ground and use algorithms to predict how hardware will react in space.

Exploration Flight Test-1: Before the first flight of NASA’s Orion crew vehicle in 2014, we created thousands of data sets to try to predict how it would perform in space. We also dropped it from planes to test the parachutes, conducted a series of “splash tests” to determine how high-impact water landings would affect the vehicle and future crews inside it. After the test flight, where Orion orbited Earth twice, scientists and engineers were able to compare their ground models with the actual performance, which, in turn, improved the ground modelling algorithms.

The Lunar Mapping and Modeling Project (LMMP) has developed a suite of interactive online tools that incorporate observations from past and current lunar missions, creating a comprehensive planetary research Web portal. The site incorporates data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and other past lunar programs and missions including Apollo, Lunar Orbiter, Lunar Prospector, Clementine, Kaguya and Chandrayaan-1.


Data from technology demonstrations help us to validate modelling techniques. Before we launch major hardware systems to space, we test on the ground and use algorithms to predict how hardware will react in space.


Moon Trek is a major new release that significantly upgrades and builds upon the site’s previous capabilities, with greatly improved navigation, 3D visualization, fly-overs, performance, and reliability. The data and tools available through the project website allow researchers to perform in-depth analyses to support mission planning and system design for lunar exploration and science missions. It enables detailed scientific analysis as well as education and outreach.

Mars Trek showcases data collected by NASA at various landing sites on Mars. It also provides a set of tools including 3D printing, elevation profiles, sun angle calculations, Sun and Earth position, as well as bookmarks for the path journeyed during “The Martian” and for the exploration areas covered by Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity, the Phoenix mission, and the Pathfinder mission.

Data that we share with the public challenges data visualization. Sometimes we have more data than we have time to process. We have a suite of excellent products that allows us to push data out to the public for analysis, visualization and optimization. Recently, NASA released raw images from the Juno spacecraft to the public, encouraging citizen scientists to help create visualizations of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

The Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) works across NASA and with other federal agencies to infuse crowdsourcing methods to create innovative, efficient, and optimal solutions to real-world problems. Over 200 Advanced Exploration Systems technical and mission support challenges have been completed through CoECI utilizing the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL), an online facility that offers a wide variety of platforms for launching challenges for external participation.

The International Space Apps Challenge opens the opportunity for thousands of citizen developers from across the planet to contribute their time to helping NASA  create mobile interfaces for our programs.


 There is still time to register for the Global Forum Conference 2017 today!

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