The costs of underwriting a space programme are huge, but US space agency NASA still has to account for every cent. As part of an overall rationalisation programme in the late 1990s NASA restructured its Shuttle Processing Directorate, which scrutinises spacecraft manufacturing.
Initially NASA employees were working alongside engineers contracted from the US Space Alliance, reviewing every step of the manufacturing process. Having decided that this was too much duplication of effort, NASA was faced with the task of rigorously checking the 37,000 tasks needed for flight certification using fewer staff. It was agreed that NASA would access the Alliance's operational logs, using reporting tools to monitor the process from a remote location.
NASA developed its own application – Insight – to enable the data to be extracted from the Alliance's servers. To complete the reporting, the Directorate needed an error-free web-based business intelligence tool.
Having conducted a survey of the market, NASA chose Information Builders. While functionality was vital, NASA also had one eye on costs. "We didn't want to go to lots of different vendors for applications and then worry about integration," says NASA project manager Ron Phelps. "Information Builders could provide us with every function we needed. Plus they weren't as expensive as some of the other vendors."
NASA uses the data extraction tool from Information Builder subsidiary iWay and the webFocus business intelligence platform to compile reports. Initially NASA just used the standard reports, but after a while the objectives of the project and demands from the users changed. "We have deployed and tested parts of the system as we have built it," says Phelps, "rather than having to rip it out and start again as requirements change."
Phelps admits that user requirements have continued to shift since the initial implementation process was complete. That is the nature of working with highly technical and technology-literate employees, says Phelps. Keeping up with their demands has been the hardest part of the project, he adds.
Users can now generate reports in a fraction of the time previously needed. "One particular user would take two or three weeks to gather the data for his metrics, load them into Excel, conduct the analysis, export the results to PowerPoint and distribute the report," says Phelps. "Now that whole process takes minutes."
Microsoft Office tools are also used heavily at NASA, and the ability to export data and reports to Excel is one of the most popular features among users. "We can let them export to Excel and play with the data in the way that they are used to, without affecting the original data," says Phelps.