NASA, Google alliance slow going

Tech Culture

After listening to two different talks at the annual Space 2006 conference this week--one featuring Google's director of research, Peter Norvig, and another by NASA Ames' director of strategic relationships, Chris Kemp--it's easy to surmise that the search and science alliance between Google and NASA is slow going.

Both Norvig and Kemp separately alluded to difficulty in the Google-NASA partnership, which was by Google Chief Eric Schmidt and has yet to produce a so-called Space Act contract that would outline forward-looking joint projects. (Kemp said the Space Act was close to being finalized, but didn't say what projects it might cover.)

Norvig and Kemp said the problems in the relationship surrounded differences in culture--Google's young staff is on the fast track when it comes to product cycles versus NASA's largely older staff that takes a cautious, methodical approach to research and development. (Astronauts going up in the space shuttle surely appreciate the latter.)

"There's a trade-off between moving quickly and being careful," said Norvig, who spent the early part of his career at NASA. "We (at Google) have the needle set in the other direction."

Other problems, Norvig said, deal with intellectual property and legal concerns around joint projects. But ultimately the dot-com culture could teach NASA about adapting better when there's failure, he said.

Insight into how Google and NASA work together could shed light on the government agency's broader strategy to team up with private industry to advance space exploration. NASA has several initiatives in the works, including government awards and a venture capital fund, to foster private industry's development of networking technology, robotics and nanotech for space travel and tourism.

Still, Google's Norvig ended his talk on a high note. He said an exciting thing about the partnership is gaining access to NASA's enormous data sets, including scientific and historical data and aerial imagery. "We're getting that out," he said. Also, Google and NASA enjoy an intellectual exchange that can be helpful to the search giant in, for example, learning about NASA's approach to supercomputing.

"It can be fruitful to talk about architectures and learn from each other," he said.

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