When the Internet came along in the 1990s, like a lot of government agencies, NASA kind of scratched its head and wondered what to make of all this freely shared information. But unlike a lot of other agencies, NASA had a trove of images, audio, and video the general public wanted to see. After all, this was the agency that had sent people to the Moon, taken photos of every planet in the Solar System, and launched the Hubble Space Telescope. So each of the NASA field centers—there are 10 of them—began digitizing their photo archives and putting them online. Johnson Space Center in Houston, for example, had thousands of images of space shuttle astronauts training and flying in space. Kennedy Space Center had launch photos. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory had planets, rings, comets, and more. Unfortunately, these images were spread across dozens of NASA.gov sites, with no good way to search the different databases.
“It was, to be honest, pretty frustrating because you had to have a lot of knowledge about NASA itself to know where a particular image might be,” said Rodney Grubbs, imagery program manager for NASA. The space agency made some efforts with commercial companies in the 2000s to organize its image collection, Grubbs said—but mistakes were made. “It did not result in something that helped us,” he said.
A few years ago, NASA tried again, working with a company called InfoZen. The challenge wasn’t quite up there with landing humans on the Moon, but consolidating 140,000 images, videos, and audio files that existed in more than 100 collections was not exactly a simple challenge.
The first task involved getting everyone at the various centers on board with the project. This was difficult, because some centers had been publishing their photos to the web for about two decades, in their own way. So Grubbs and his commercial partner had to create a common metadata system, and then weed out duplicate photos. Then, the government needed to find cloud infrastructure that met its security protocols.
“One aspect that enabled this project was that it was completely cloud-based and NASA did not need to make any hardware investment,” InfoZen chief executive Raj Ananthanpillai told Ars. “The NASA library is implemented as immutable Infrastructure as Code in a cloud native architecture using AWS services. The makes for an extremely responsive user experience for the public as images and assets are propagated around the world.”
The end result of all that is pretty spectacular. The simple interface allows for snappy searching of NASA’s best images, audio files, and videos, and the search can then be narrowed by year. I tried searching for astronaut Gus Grissom, and the results returned dozens of images, several of which I’d never seen before. So far, reviews of the new site have been pleasantly positive, Grubbs said. “It’s a snarky world out there on the internet. People can be pretty cruel. But given he scope and number of eyeballs, we haven’t really receive anything terribly snarky. Of course, there have been the usual questions about where the alien pictures are.”