By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
NASA, seeking to give the public easy access to its massive trove of images and data about Earth and outer space, has entered into a formal agreement with Google to post material from the agency's many missions on the Internet. As the technology improves and the collaboration grows, officials said, viewers could one day be treated to live video from the moon, Mars and elsewhere.
"This agreement between NASA and Google will soon allow every American to experience a virtual flight over the surface of the moon or through the canyons of Mars," NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said in a statement. He called the effort one "to make NASA's space exploration work accessible to everyone."
The agreement was announced at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. Google had previously announced plans to build a 1 million-square-foot facility at the research park. But while Google will be the first major online collaborator with NASA, the agency said that the images are not exclusive and that it is working on similar projects with other Internet portals.
"NASA has collected and processed more information about our planet and universe than any other entity in the history of humanity," said Chris C. Kemp, director of strategic business development at Ames. "Even though this information was collected for the benefit of everyone, and much is in the public domain, the vast majority of this information is scattered and difficult for non-experts to access and to understand."
Google and NASA researchers have already worked on several projects together, the agency said, with good results. "We are bringing together some of the best research scientists and engineers to form teams to make more of NASA's vast information accessible," Kemp said.
Under the arrangement, Ames will provide Google with its weather forecasting information, three-dimensional maps of the moon and Mars, and real-time tracking of the international space station and space shuttle flights. It is the kind of public-private cooperation encouraged by the National Aeronautics and Space Act, NASA officials said.
Ames chief S. Pete Wardon said that NASA has also converted video from the Apollo missions to the moon into digital form, and in the future those images could also be available for viewing online.
"The goal is to allow the public to feel they are virtually there," Wardon said, likening the Internet initiative to the fictional "holideck" virtual-reality chamber of the "Star Trek" television series.
"In the next decade, we're looking at the kind of technology that would enable people to feel the crunch of Martian soil as they move around, to feel the Martian wind on their faces. This is a step in that direction," Wardon said.
Under the agreement, he said, Google will use NASA images on its Google Earth Web site and will financially support some related projects at the agency. He said some collaborations are already under way -- in particular, a global-imaging project called the Global Connection, with National Geographic magazine and Carnegie Mellon University -- and more will begin in the next six months.
NASA officials said Google's technical expertise, as well as its popularity, will help spread excitement and knowledge about space and about NASA's plans to go back to the moon and on to Mars.
"The data already exists, from dozens of human and robotic missions," Wardon said. "The taxpayers have already paid for the data, and it should be available."
Google officials said they expected to learn from NASA's expertise as well, in addition to providing compelling images for users.
"Partnering with NASA made perfect sense for Google, as it has a wealth of technical expertise and data that will be of great use to Google as we look to tackle many computing issues on behalf of our users," the company's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, said in a statement. Megan Smith, the company's director of new business development, said many Google employees first got excited about computer technology through NASA, so it is especially meaningful for them to be working with the agency.