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Google's Schmidt to NASA: Be more 'open'

In speech for space agency's 50th anniversary, search giant chief lays out vision for a NASA that builds open systems, simple platforms, and spaceships that can talk to one another.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
2 min read

WASHINGTON--Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt on Thursday suggested NASA could learn a few things from his company.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was the keynote speaker at a Washington luncheon commemorating NASA's 50th anniversary. Anne Broache/CNET News.com

Speaking at a luncheon series to commemorate the agency's 50th anniversary this year, Schmidt urged the space agency to take after what Google attempts to accomplish with its products: Build open, collaborative systems, not closed ones--a reference to NASA's legacy of creating mission-specific vehicles. Create simple platforms upon which others can build. And while you're at it, why not let spacecraft talk to each other?

"Isn't it obvious that spacecraft should have Internet on them, too?" Schmidt asked an audience of about 100 NASA officials, contractors, and Capitol Hill staffers, with the U.S. Capitol building barely visible in the snowy scene through the floor-to-ceiling glass panes behind him.

OK, maybe not an "open" Internet, he conceded: We wouldn't want people hacking spacecraft and remotely flying them off course, would we?

The feel-good speech, which lasted about 40 minutes, wasn't only about tooting his company's own horn. The Google chief, who described himself as a "strong supporter of NASA," devoted a good chunk of his time to a presentation on flat-panel screens describing how his company relies on the agency for its products--allowing, say, users of Google Earth to zoom in on Neil Armstrong's footprint on the moon and view far-out star fields.

Schmidt acknowledged that it may not be possible for NASA to replicate the professed Google mission statement. After all, it constantly has to grapple with limited time windows for takeoffs and the like. And that interplanetary Internet, capable of stretching "way out there," as Schmidt put it? The study team trying to make it happen is facing its own set of challenges (spinning in space doesn't help latency, it seems). But they shouldn't lose hope, Schmidt said.

"In many ways Google and NASA are similar," Schmidt declared, "in that they're based in optimism."

Even Google itself, of course, isn't open about everything. It limits visitors to its campus, and they're asked to sign off on non-disclosure agreements before printing out identification badges. Not all of its source code is open to inspection, and its page-ranking techniques aren't either.

Schmidt's one-day visit to the slush-covered nation's capital also includes a private meeting with the President's Management Council, a group of federal agency deputy secretaries, which a Google representative said would be "wide-ranging." He's also scheduled to attend a reception Thursday evening to kick off the opening of Google's new D.C. digs, which we chronicled in photos earlier this week.