NASA Proves Aiming High Pays Off

After traveling 300 million miles to Mars, the NASA Spirit proved that giant efforts can yield amazing rewards.

There is nothing like a big, complicated, high-profile mission to shine the light of public attention on technology. No, Im not talking about Microsoft once again trying to get Windows to be the centerpiece of the home network. And Im not speaking of the latest anti-spam software, either. Im referring to NASAs Mars mission. Not only is it a vast, complex project, it is successful—so far—as well.

After traveling 300 million miles, going through a difficult descent, landing and sending photos back from Mars, the NASA Spirit proved that giant efforts can yield amazing rewards. Within a week, the photos of the surface of Mars went from grainy black and white to vivid color, and the story proved even more popular on the Web than Britney Spears walk (and retreat) down the wedding aisle in Las Vegas. By Tuesday of last week, Web visitors to the site had downloaded nearly 15 terabytes of information related to the Mars mission.

The two great drivers of technology in the mid-20th century—World War II and the space race—laid the foundation for many of the technological developments we enjoy today. During the last few years, companies have been reluctant to embark on big projects, but as the Mars mission demonstrates, it is those big leaps that produce the biggest results.

The second big government-backed project in the news was the start of an ID system for many foreigners entering the United States. While much of the public focus was on the fingerprint scanners and digital cameras that are due to become part of every U.S. port of entry, the database back end that will match entry and exit data for an estimated 24 million visitors per year is the bigger achievement.

It is a challenging, complicated task to match scanned data, check identifications against federal terrorist and criminal watch lists, assure privacy, and keep the process within a 10- to 15-second wait time. The scanning project is just beginning, but in its first days, the system seemed to be working as expected. It is noteworthy that, when many are proclaiming the end of the big IT project, the year has started with two large technology undertakings, both driven by the government.

Do two federal projects point to a trend that will carry into the private sector? I wont go that far, but an improving economy and renewed global competition will lead companies to expect larger productivity improvements, faster product development and more rapid entry into global markets.

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