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Leading the Open Government Movement at NASA

Open government is an integral part of NASA's culture, and NASA is excited to be a leader in these efforts for the U.S. government.

Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of in-depth profiles of open government plans from across the Executive Branch.

For over 50 years, NASA has nurtured and developed a rich culture of openness, fostering collaboration among scientists and sharing with the public at large the excitement surrounding scientific discoveries, aeronautics, and space. Open government is an integral part of our culture, and NASA is excited to be a leader in these efforts for the U.S. government. 

Our commitment to experimenting with and embracing new ways of collaboration begins with our efforts to infuse innovation into the U.S. space program.  The process for the Human Spaceflight Review in 2009 led to policies that incorporated citizen involvement and feedback, and the development of NASA’s Open Government Plan relied upon tools to ensure citizen engagement.

We continue to embrace collaboration for all of our communities – from citizen scientists and inventors to the public at large, from NASA’s workforce of scientists and engineers to NASA’s community of partners. We’re excited about all of these initiatives and invite your participation.  Each of the efforts described below offer a link to their fact sheet in the Open Government plan which includes ways to get involved.

For citizen scientists and innovators, we have created a prize program and avenues for talented and interested members of the public to contribute to NASA programs in a meaningful way. We believe that making space exploration exciting and manageable will create advocates, ambassadors, and a volunteer technical community to assist in space exploration. These efforts include:

  • NASA’s highly successful Centennial Challenges prize program has engaged innovators from around the country to successfully build prototypes of technology and innovation for use in the space and aeronautics sector.
  • NASA is establishing a new Participatory Exploration Office, which will be charged with infusing more public participation into NASA’s mission in order to directly engage citizens in exploration.
  • Every single science mission stores and archives all data received from spacecraft. NASA has decades of publicly available data. NASA’s Open Government Plan commits to making this data more easily accessible and user-friendly.
  • NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been working with Harvard University, InnoCentive, and others to facilitate open innovation approaches into the research portfolio.

For the public at large, we have communicated our programs through our website, blogs, or the NASA Television channel. We have a rich Education and Outreach portfolio with resources for museums and teachers. More recently, we have experimented with microblogging, social photo sharing and ideation tool to allow the public to communicate and share information with NASA. These efforts include:

  • Social engagement tools to collect hundreds of ideas for improving the agency's openness and transparency;
  • Giving the public live access to its missions through NASA TV and its many social media sites; and
  • NASA’s education outreach program includes initiatives where students have opportunities to control space instruments remotely.

NASA is primarily a workforce of scientists and engineers, and as such we have created communities of practice to stimulate internal and external collaboration.  We listened to our software engineers and created the NASA Open Source Agreement (NOSA) so that we could share our technology with those outside of government and, in turn, have them share their tools with us for the common benefit of the space program.  As a result, we also learn from the commercial sector and infuse new innovations into NASA quickly and if appropriate, integrate them into our contracts. These efforts include:

  • The NASA Engineering Network is an integrated suite of tools from 45 engineering repositories and 1.4 million records with a Lessons Learned Information System of official NASA vetted lessons, encouraging internal communities of practice formed along engineering disciplines;
  • Through a new policy initiative, NASA is working to make open source software development more collaborative for the benefit of the agency and the public;
  • NASA has created "Nebula," the U.S. government’s first open source cloud computing platform, which offers an easier way for NASA scientists and researchers to share large, complex data sets with external partners and the public; and 
  • NASA is one of the leading Federal Agencies using Social Media and is piloting new technologies and tools (like Macs and iPads) to enhance worker productivity and attract the next generation of workers. 

For NASA partners, NASA has been open for business and partnerships for decades and allows us to transfer our technologies to other sectors while also infusing innovations into NASA’s program.  We share our technical reports, patents, and open technology with universities, start-ups, and corporations with the intent to stimulate the economy. These efforts include:

  • NASA uses Space Act Agreements as the primary vehicle for partnering with partners like  Google, General Motors, and European Space Agency. Space Act Agreements allow access to a wider range of technologies and capabilities that are not part of NASA's core competency;
  • The NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) is a public database of NASA's current and historical technical literature. NTRS provides access to approximately 500,000 aerospace related citations, 90,000 full-text online documents, and 111,000 images and videos; and
  • NASA transfers technology to the private sector and state and local governments by actively seeking licensees. More than 1,600 such technology transfer successes have been documented in NASA's Spinoff Magazine over the years, which include commercial applications in health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, agriculture, environmental resources, computer technology, manufacturing, and energy conversion and use.

All of these efforts are detailed in NASA’s Open Government Plan, representing a new chapter in NASA’s culture of openness and an exciting collaborative effort between citizens, advocacy groups, NASA employees, and of course, between agencies. This is the beginning of a movement in government and in space collaboration, where we are creating a learning community as we transform how we do business. We invite your continued thoughts and participation in these efforts, as we work collaboratively to enhance NASA’s transition to a twenty-first century space program.

Linda Cureton is the Chief Information Officer at NASA.  Beth Robinson is the Chief Financial Officer at NASA.