2011

Dr. Jim Green, Director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC

Dr. Jim Green began his NASA career in 1980 at Marshall Space Flight Center’s Magnetospheric Physics Branch where he developed and managed the Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN), NASA’s precursor to the Internet. From 1985 to 1992 he served as Head of the National Space Science Data Center at the Goddard Space Flight Center, followed by a 13-year stint as Chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office. In 2005 he was named Chief of the Science Proposal Support Office, where he served until August 2006 when he was appointed Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

NASA Tech Briefs: You began your NASA career in 1980 at Marshall Space Flight Center’s Magnetospheric Physics Branch where you developed and managed the Space Physics Analysis Network. What was the Space Physics Analysis Network?

altDr. Jim Green: Yes, SPAN. Those were fantastic days. I was at Marshall Space Flight Center working with a group that was doing some fabulous mass storage technologies, and I had the responsibility to load our spacecraft data into this huge online optical disk systems that provided immediate access to very large quantities of spacecraft data. These were the first online terabyte archives. 

I was given the responsibility to work with them and get the data in and then develop the testing and the test plan, and I suddenly realized how inadequate I was to really be able to test the system. It dawned on me, and several others in the group, that the best way to do that was to get the people that we were working with – the co-investigators – to also help me because they wanted to get access to this data too. So that was why I started investigating a variety of network technologies, because all of these groups were at various locations in the United States.

By the end of 1980 we already had several computer links up, and then by 1981 and 1982 I was bringing groups on right and left. The bottom line to that was the technology did not prove to be as useful as we had hoped. It was very cumbersome. It was some of the earliest attempts at using optical disks for online technologies, and that whole field rapidly changed anyway. But the network was an unbelievable success. We literally had NASA’s first Internet going. We communicated. We did remote log-ons. Email was every day, of course. The things that we take for granted now we were doing in 1980. We were developing proposals across the Net and it was just doing fantastic. It really developed into quite the capability for NASA.

Then, by 1985, a new wrinkle occurred that turned out to be associated with a spacecraft called the International Cometary Explorer, or ICE. ICE was a spacecraft that’s primary mission was really to be a solar wind monitor. It was called ISEE-3 – International Sun Earth Explorer 3 – and it was sitting at the L1 Langrangian point measuring the solar wind. NASA decided to pull it out of that orbit, do a couple of neat swing-bys of the Earth and the moon, and throw it towards a comet called Giacobini-Zinner and fly right through the tail. This was important to do because we’d never had a comet encounter before, and it was a fantastic event, but the really big problem with that was the data system.

The data system for the ISEE-3, when it was sitting at the Lagrangian point, the data was written to magnetic tape. When you filled a tape, you stuck the tape in a box and when you filled the box, you taped it up and sent it to the investigator. So, with that data system everyone got their data a month later – no real time anything – and it was very distributed, meaning it had international investigators and instruments on it from international scientists. Now the press was used to the GPO encounters of Voyager flying by Saturn and Jupiter and Uranus and Neptune, and the press was able to talk to the scientists and have them tell everybody about the new discoveries within hours after the encounter. This really caused a dilemma, and it dawned on a number of us scientists that the best thing we could do was to use the SPAN network in a unique way. We could put the data on the network, send the data to the remote sites where many of the investigators were, have them analyze the data, then bring the data back and have the principal investigators at a central location at Goddard review the analyzed results, make the discoveries, have the press conference, and make it look exactly like the press was used to with the really big encounters from the Voyagers.

The real problem was that we also had European investigators, so once we got the approval from the project to use SPAN, I immediately started working with ESA and they were just wonderful to work with. They came up with an international link into Darmstadt, Germany, and then ESA took that link and sent it out to the investigators and voila, we started connecting the European scientists together! And that was 1985. In September of 1985 the ICE encounter [through the comet’s tail] occurred, and it worked perfectly. It was just a rousing success. It really was one of the highlights of how we used the network. By 1987 we were in Japan, and by 1992 we were in Russia. So SPAN really was the beginning of NASA’s Internet and just a tremendous capability for the science community.