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October 7, 2005

Google and NASA: The Latest Hot Couple

By Peter Meade

Almost everyone loves to hear about the latest hot couple. Long after there were Fairbanks and Pickford or Gable and Lombard (OK, I'm really pre-dating myself here), the public has teetered on its collective seat over the latest disclosures surrounding high-profile pairings such as Ben & Jen (Lopez), Ben & Jen (Garner) or Brad and Jen (Aniston).

Sure, some of these pairings weren't anymore substantial than Britney Spears' first marriage or Renee Zellweger's recent altar trip, but Hollywood doesn't own the exclusive rights to “celebrity” pairings. The high tech crowd has gotten its dosage of buzz from matings including those of several wireless carriers as well as the Hewlett Packard-Compaq, Symantec-Veritas and EMC-StorageTek hookups.

But while most of these pairings have made as much sense to me as any newly disclosed couple, the recent news about NASA Ames Research Center and Google Inc., arguably, stands as the most dynamic duo since John & Yoko. (I know, dating myself again.)

The two Silicon Valley all-stars have made a splash by announcing their plans to work together on a spate of technology-related research and development projects that take in distributed computing, data management and something called “bio-info-nano convergence.” Just like any Hollywood pairing, these activities, we are assured, would take place on in ultra-large scale.

For example, Google plans to develop as much as one million square feet of real estate within the NASA Research Park, located at Moffett Field, in Mountain View, Calif. Wouldn't one of those World War II-era blimp hangars there make the best indoor venue for Google's intramural flag football games?

But Google has some serious goals too. “Google and NASA share a common desire – to bring a universe of information to people around the world,” said Google CEO Eric Schmidt. “Imagine having a wide selection of images from the Apollo space mission at your fingertips whenever you want it. That's just one small example of how this collaboration could help broaden technology's role in making the world a better place.”

That Google: always trying to make “the world a better place.” Yes, so far I've been limited to having Google show me satellite images of my house. Believe Google is serious about its quest to own the universe – literally. As evidence, Google recently registered domains pairing itself with every planet in the solar system and to top it off also registered “googlegalactic.com” and “googleuniverse.com” for good measure.

“We already have Google Earth,” said the company's director of search quality Peter Norvig. “We'd like to have Google Mars and Google Moon.” Ah, doesn't every Romeo want to give his Juliet the moon? At the very least, the deal gives Google access to NASA researchers and the supercomputing prowess they have developed.

Turning serious for at least a moment, the Google-NASA pairing promises to go a long way toward bringing the capabilities of high performance computing – still an esoteric concept as understandable as the moon to many – closer to the mainstream's understanding. Just as the Council on Competitiveness strove to accomplish with its outstanding new DVD focusing on HPC in everyday life, Google's ubiquity matched with NASA Ames' otherworldly capabilities promise great advances that should trickle down to the common folk. Imagine what Google can do with access to NASA Ames' Project Columbia supercomputer, which boasts 10,000 processors. What a sweet trousseau, sure bets having to shop on Google's Froogle offering.

“The technologies created by the partnership of Google and NASA Ames not only will enable and enhance further exploration of space, it will positively impact the daily lives of all Americans for generations to come,” said California representative Anna G. Eshoo. Not too much pressure there.

“NASA is drowning in information and we welcome someone who can help with this technological challenge,” said Scott Pace, director of NASA Ames. This translated seems to mean that Google will play Felix and NASA will be Oscar in this presentation of “The Odd Couple.”

And like any good Felix, Google already has a solution waiting. “Imagine if our supercomputering power can be applied to the problem,” said Google's Schmidt. “I didn't realize how much content and information was trapped in the accumulated history of these organizations.”

Imagine what could happen when Google's geeks start speaking supercomputing on a regular basis with NASA's engineers. Perhaps their first offspring will be three-dimensional versions of all the cool stuff on the Google Maps service.