IT infrastructure in the new space age with Nate Apodaca
Humans are about to return to the moon after half a century. The tech that will get us there has changed drastically. In this episode, we focus on the IT infrastructure that’s making space exploration possible. Nate Apodaca is the Vice President and Division Manager of the NASA IT portfolio at Leidos. He joins host Shaunté Newby to share what IT infrastructure means in the context of space exploration, why it's more important than ever, and the new challenges that his team at Leidos' are working to overcome.
"It's interesting thinking back to what sent a man to the moon the first time...to see the sheer size and volume of those (computers) and to know now that we have that technology at our fingertips and the ability and the power that it can provide is really beyond imagination."
In December 2022, it will officially be 50 years since humans set foot on the moon. In half a century, the world has changed drastically, and so has the technology that got us there. But as the world has turned more digital, the importance of secure and stable IT infrastructure has never been more important. That's why as NASA looks forward to the most ambitious era of space travel in history, they need a team that can be trusted to bring the best and most reliable systems possible.
On today's podcast:
- What makes IT infrastructure for NASA unique
- Why the technology is so much more sophisticated than in previous space ages
- As NASA increases its velocity in its race to space, Leidos IT services will transform and transfigure the way that NASA consumes, accepts, and embraces information technology
MOON LANDING: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind
Shaunté Newby: It's hard to believe it, but those words were spoken 53 years ago. That famous sentence symbolized the beginning of an incredible era for the United States space program. Over the next three years, the US completed five more successful missions putting astronauts on the moon. But 1972 marked the end of putting humans on the surface. Until now.
NASA WE ARE GOING: It’s very pretty out here today. Today, our calling to explore is even greater. To go farther, we must be able to sustain missions of greater distance and duration. We must use the resources we find at our destinations. We must overcome radiation, isolation, gravity, and extreme environments like never before. These are the challenges we faced to push the bounds of humanity. We're going to the moon, to stay, by 2024.
Shaunté Newby: That's from three years ago when NASA announced that we are sending people back to the moon. And as you heard, this time, we have a much more ambitious plan to set up a permanent lunar station.
But doing so is not going to be easy. A lot has changed in half a century. Technology is in a completely different place. And that means there are a lot of new challenges to consider in a mission this big.
Nate Apodaca: I think from a security perspective, we’re sort of guardians of NASA data.
Shaunté Newby: Digital security has never been more important. The risks that are present in today's technological world are astronomically more dangerous than 50 years ago. Here at Leidos, we've been working with NASA to build a secure modern space program. That's what we'll be talking about today with Nate Apodaca.
Nate Apodaca: My name is Nate Apodaca. I am the vice president and division manager of the NASA IT portfolio within the civil group at Leidos.
Shaunté Newby: Nate and his team's work is incalculable. It's something he's excited to dedicate his career to.
Nate Apodaca: I want my grandchildren to feel the same excitement that I did as a boy when me and my father used to watch shows like Nova and talk about NASA and I want my family would be proud of me and I want my employees to be proud of their achievements.
Shaunté Newby: Today, he joins us to explain the major differences in IT infrastructure compared to our moon expeditions of the past, how private companies like SpaceX change the landscape, the difference modern-day computing power makes on the missions and a whole lot more. So let's take off.
Shaunté Newby: My name is Shaunté Newby. This is MindSET, a podcast by Leidos. In this series, our goal is to have you walk away from every episode with a new understanding of the complex and fascinating technological advancement going on at Leidos. From space IT, to trusted AI, to threat-informed cybersecurity, we’ve got a lot going on, and we’re excited to share it with you.
Shaunté Newby: Nate, thank you for taking the time to be here today. So why don't you tell me a little bit about what you do at Leidos?
Nate Apodaca: Well, I am the division manager within Leidos managing our NASA IT portfolio, so I am responsible for providing thought leadership and innovated approaches around technology service needs for NASA's IT mission.
Shaunté Newby: Oh, that sounds so cool!
Nate Apodaca: I tried to make it sound that way.
Shaunté Newby: It does, it does. Leidos always impresses me with the things that you all touch. What were you doing before Leidos? I noticed an interesting fact about you, that you joined Lockheed Martin in 2000. So technically you've been with the same company for…how long, now?
Nate Apodaca: Yeah. At 22 years, 22 years. Yeah, I pride myself in telling people I've only had two jobs, the U.S. Army and Lockheed/Leidos and luckily, they both start with L so that helps me, you know.
Shaunté Newby: Okay, alright, and so that's interesting, too. So thank you for your service. You said, you mentioned the U.S. Army. So what was your background? I guess, what were you doing in the Army?
Nate Apodaca: In the Army, I was in aviation. I was an Apache helicopter crew chief, so not really a technologist in the way that I am today or the way that I came up in a commercial world. It was more, you know, around making sure that that aircraft was functional and flying. But there were some technical aspects to that, I’ve always just had a passion for computers.
I was sort of the kid growing up that would, you know, take apart the toaster and put it back together and take about the telephone and put it back together. So, IT, from that perspective, always just excited me. And so transitioning from the military, into the commercial world, I had to really kind of pick a career path and, and that's what spoke to me the most.
Shaunté Newby: Okay. I love what you shared about being passionate about computers. I figured, this is going to sound silly, but there's two types of people. The people that would back in the day, I'm dating ourselves, but the one that would fix the time on the VCR versus the one that would let it blink 12:00.
Nate Apodaca: Yeah. That would drive me nuts.
Shaunté Newby: And you would be the one that was fixing it.
Nate Apodaca: Oh, that was me. And then, you know, you sort of become that for everybody in your family. You know, I go visit my grandparents and, you know, my grandma would tell me, you know, I can't get the blender to work, or you know, the coffee pot, isn't making hot water. And so, you know, they'd expect me to take it apart and see what I could do.
Shaunté Newby: What's interesting is I'm hearing you smile and laugh as you talk about this and it sounds like you just are very passionate about this. So why are you so passionate about this work that you're doing?
Nate Apodaca: I think because I know what it can do and mean when we can provide quality solutions at speed and scale, really. I worked my way again, from that service tech technician all the way here and you know, my dream was to be here. You know, I had a set goal and I think when you have a set goal and a path and you continue to step forward, as you start to actually realize that it's very motivating, right? And then you build up some equity and now you've got ownership and then you start to bring people on board and now they buy in and they've got equity, they've got ownership and just becomes this, what we call, self-licking ice cream cone. It just really starts to grow and mature, but in a very positive way.
Shaunté Newby: Okay. I like it. So, you know what, there's always something so romantic about looking up at the stars and just wondering what's going on out there. For you, how does it feel to be a part of actually trying to figure that out?
Nate Apodaca: That’s awesome. I think, well, I agree with you, there’s nothing more romantic than a moonlit sparkling sky. What I would say is, except perhaps, when we get to put boots and heels on the moon and knowing that we could attribute it to that and some small factor that there are actually people there and doing a mission and we contributed to putting them there.
Shaunté Newby: Right. That has to feel really good, like even when you see something on the news and you can just smile and like yeah, we had something to do with that, right?
Nate Apodaca: Right. Exactly right.
Shaunté Newby: IT infrastructure is something we're all familiar with, whether we know it or not. If you've set up your wifi router in your house, you've set up IT infrastructure. That's just a simple example. Organizations often have a lot more equipment that needs to be taken care of, from routers to servers, to firewalls, there's a lot going on.
TRON CLIP: We've created a vast, complex system.
Shaunté Newby: Things can get pretty complicated, pretty fast. And the bigger things get, the more potential weak spots for security there are. If you can imagine, an organization as massive and as focused on security as NASA, needs a very strong and capable team. That's why they work with Nate and his team at Leidos.
But what makes this work different than regular IT? I asked Nate to explain that.
Nate Apodaca: Well first, I probably need to explain that the NASA IT portfolio is made up of two large-scale enterprise contracts. That's the NEST contract, which has all the end-user activities and basically anything you would see touch and feel on your desk is supported, provided, and maintained by that contract. And then we have the AEGIS contract, which we just started on the 1st of May, which is all of the cloud data center and infrastructure and network support that supports the entire enterprise IT organization for NASA. So with those two large enterprise contracts, it really means that we're transforming how NASA compute is done from the end point, all the way to the cloud and covering the gamut. And with this new AEGIS contract, we plan to sort of erase any boundaries and we can really get hyper-focused on providing quality of service in a timely enterprise environment. And as well as focusing on things like boundary control and advanced security solutions, Zero Trust, and things that are near and dear to the CIO and NASA.
Shaunté Newby: You did a great job of explaining what Leidos does in this field. So what does your team specifically do? Because you mentioned a large number of people.
Nate Apodaca: From a communications perspective, we support the network. We provide all the cabling, the fiber and all of those pathways that provide access to information to and from all of our customer locations of which they are about 18, a few of them international and then predominantly most of them inside of the U.S., as well as the International Space Station, is one of our supported sites. So that's always interesting, but basically anything that a NASA user mission operator, scientist, or engineer would do is most likely being accessed through a Leidos device and/or managed and maintained through our Leidos-supported infrastructure.
Shaunté Newby: Oh, wow. See, that's a lot of stuff that people don't realize that goes into it. We just see the end result of all of that work.
Nate Apodaca: Correct.
Shaunté Newby: Why is it so critical to protect communication in this industry specifically?
Nate Apodaca: I think from a security perspective, we’re sort of guardians of NASA data. And we provide all of the endpoint management patching and software to provide end user data security, as well as end user data in the cloud, but there's a bunch of Zero Trust things that have to happen from an infrastructure perspective on the backend. And you can imagine, adversaries trying to get access to the network and see what's going on. We're in constant protection mode, right? And making sure that we bring the latest and greatest to bear there. So, I mean, it's usually important just because we feel a real responsibility to protect NASA's data.
Shaunté Newby: Is there a different mindset when working with human exploration missions?
Nate Apodaca: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, whenever you add putting someone's life on the line into the mix that definitely heightens, you know, the pucker factor and our attention to detail. NASA has built itself on process and safety and understanding that there are certain protocols in place, you know, when they're building a rocket and putting a rocket on a pad and then putting a person inside of that rocket. So we just sort of align ourselves to that process when we're delivering IT. We make sure that we have fail safes, that we have good checks and balances, that we're instituting good quality assurance plans, sort of check the check, our process, buddy systems when necessary, and lots and lots of testing and validation before we deploy anything into the operational environment.
Shaunté Newby: That's great to hear, like you said, you do have lives in your hands. So, that part, testing, people take that for granted in other areas of IT. But this one, it sounds like we can't play around with that one.
Nate Apodaca: Exactly right.
Shaunté Newby: Good to know, and I'm sure the families are thankful to know that that is going on with their loved ones going out into space.
1972 LANDING: Ten, nine, eight, seven, ignition sequence started. All engines are started, we have ignition, two, one, zero. We have a liftoff. We have a liftoff and it’s moving off the pad.
Shaunté Newby: That audio is from December of 1972. What you're hearing is the take-off of our last mission sending humans to the surface of the moon. That means, in December, we'll be hitting 50 years since we've stepped foot on the moon.
For the past half a century, we've heavily relied on machines for our space exploration. And that's not to say we haven't achieved a lot. We've been to Mars, we've had two probes; Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, reach interstellar space, and we've continued to advance our knowledge of our cosmic beyond.
Now we're ushering in a new, and perhaps, the most exciting phase of our research yet. But as we've shown, a lot has changed. I asked Nate to explain how our major advancements will impact this new era of space exploration.
Nate Apodaca: You know, it's interesting thinking back to really what sent a man to the moon the first time, you know, and the size of the computers. And I've been at installations at NASA centers and seeing those old computers, they're in museums now. You would imagine, but to see the sheer size and volume of those, and to know now that we have that technology at our fingertips and the ability and the power that IT can provide is really beyond imagination when you think of things like quantum technologies coming into view now. But by taking advantage of things, I think like cloud opportunities, our endpoint devices, our data, our networks really can be accessible anywhere, anytime for our customers. And we're trying to create that environment. I think from a security perspective, focusing on authentication, you know, special accesses and ensuring that we remain safe, going back to our previous point, in the technology sphere is crucial. And really, if you think about it since the first time we landed on the moon, we have immediate access to data, right? There used to be a delay. There used to be processing times. Now it's almost instant instantaneous, you know, which means that we can pivot quickly, we can repair things quickly, we can access things quickly, we can update things quickly and it just makes us, while it makes us more reliant on technology, it also institutes a level, I think, of safety and resiliency that didn't exist before. Back then, from a computational perspective, they could not fail because of the length of time it took to do those computations.
Now those things are done, you know, so incredibly fast that, you know, if there is a hiccup in our testing process, we can go back one, correct, and pivot, and still stay on plan. And I think that's a huge difference. You know, it's just a different time than it was when we first landed. And that's what makes it exciting about knowing that we're going to be doing that soon and it's why I think, you know, the mission to, you know, for us to go to the moon and then ultimately be on Mars is so important and it's within our grasp, right? I mean, it's real, sometimes I'm shocked when I say that in my lifetime, people are going to be walking around on Mars.
Shaunté Newby: Right, right. Be able to buy a ticket on like Expedia or something like that?
Nate Apodaca: Right. Maybe, maybe, right. Vacation on Mars for a couple of months?
Shaunté Newby: Yes, absolutely. So, another thing to consider when it comes to technological advancements is the slew of new threats. So in the IT security world, I imagine it's a constant race to stay ahead of the newest developments in hacking and malware world. In the 21st century space exploration, is there a stronger focus on protection than there may have been back in the 60’s and 70’s?
Nate Apodaca: Oh, for sure. I mean, I think, you know, back then the only real way to get access to someone else's data was physically, right? But in today's world, as we can tell by all the, you know, attempts to alter voting and leveraging of social media and just the overwhelming reach of the internet that we see today, there's a lot more vectors of attack that we have to defend from, and it's unfortunate, right? I mean, especially as NASA, like we're not a DOD agency, right? We're not at war with anyone. We're just trying to do the mission of science, but there are still people who are out to harm or gather data, or really just to make a statement and would want to get NASA's way. So our focus is really on ensuring security for all of our customers and it's always top of mind. And as we're leveraging the most innovative solutions or these cloud enhanced technologies, we want to make sure that we've got the right people from a security perspective in the room to help take care of the IT needs to make sure that we're doing all that we can to protect NASA's networks, their missions, and their data.
Shaunté Newby: Can you tell me a little bit about the role private companies play and how is this different from our previous missions?
Nate Apodaca: I think that's really two-fold, right? So as a technology provider, we deal with a lot of OEMs, like, you know, the Dell’s, the HP's, the Cisco’s, Citrix, and what have you of the world, and they're part of our service delivery plan. We have to maintain relationships with them, we leverage their technologies, to help work with NASA. They are really the ones that are out there bringing us the latest and greatest. We’ve got great relationships with our OEMs and the IT providers of the world. I mean, we work with Google and Amazon, Microsoft, and my engineering teams have great relationships with their engineering teams to really leverage best-in-breed solutions across the business so that we're making sure that we are as effective and as efficient as possible. The interesting thing about that question, I think, is we also have on the mission side, private companies that are competing, right?
Shaunté Newby: So does the increasing prices of private companies change how you go about IT infrastructure?
Nate Apodaca: I will say there is a bit of pride in authorship and how we derive those solutions and how we compete in the market. I mean, I believe in our customer, I believe in NASA, I believe in their mission. But most importantly, I believe in our employees and the solutions that they build across both programs and their passion and focus on the mission and their ability to collaborate when necessary, but also to do good idea generation internally. And if we can build a better mouse trap, then we'll do that. And, you know, I empower them and I fully believe, and they've proven that we and they will do their part to ensure that NASA can do whatever they need to do and it really just makes me excited and I'm proud to be out front of this team, doing these amazing things.
Shaunté Newby: It's inarguable that one of the best ways to get better at anything is to learn from the past. In the case of both IT and space exploration, we've developed a rich and deep history that we'll still be taking lessons from for decades to come. And some of the most important pieces of experience that we can learn from are failures. That's an ideology that Nate brought to his team at Leidos.
Nate Apodaca: Failure is an option, right? Because I think if you're failing, you're trying, if you're trying, you know, you're doing what you need to be. When I inherited these two contracts, there was a sort of reticence there from previous providers and there was a high focus on ‘well we'll we can't drop the ball. We can't fail. We can't, you know, we can't show red. We can't say we couldn't deliver this.’ And, you know, I would ask why? Why can't we sit across the table from the customer and say, you know what, this is hard and we can't figure this out and we need your help. Or we need some more requirements or we need some more money or we need some more time. I mean, let's just talk with them, you know, but it was real sort of black box, you know, government and contractor and just kind of throwing things back and forth. And so one of my initial approaches was to break down those barriers and get everybody in the room and across the table and get them communicating and working with each other and sharing upstream and downstream and, you know. That's the other thing is I think a lot of people don't take into account that some of your best ideas and quickest pathways to success are at your lower level.
Again, I remember being a tier one help desk guy and figuring out you know what? This would work way better if we just did this and struggling to find someone to listen. So I am never that person, I will take an idea from a level one field tech or help desk person and we will maximize that. And we highly encourage that because they're the boots on the ground, they're the ones with their ear, nearest and dearest to the customer. So they know how to be most effective or what the customer is truly looking for. So we'd, you know, one would really be remiss for not sort of mining that information.
Shaunté Newby: There was a time when going to the moon felt like a sci-fi. And then, it happened for real. There was a time when landing anything on Mars could only happen in our imaginations, and now we're planning to send humans there.
Our goals of the past have always been ambitious. But we’ve overcome the challenges and seen them come to fruition. That’s something Nate is excited about when looking forward to our newest ventures.
Nate Apodaca: It's so weird to say, like, you know, “oh yeah, we're going to have a moon base.” I don't know why, because it's going to be real, but it just is odd that that's happening. It's so cool.
I think in the end, I really want NASA to realize their goals. I think I want my employees to know that they played a tremendous part in ensuring that we got to the moon and Mars and whatever else is after that. And that we're teed up for that.
Nate Apodaca: Honestly, if I’m being personal, I want my grandchildren to feel the same excitement that I did as a boy when me and my father used to watch shows like Nova and talk about NASA and I want, my family would be proud of me and I want my employees to be proud of their achievements.
And really, I know it sounds cliche, but to have the ability to impact this agency and this agency's ability to impact the world and leave it a little bit better than when we started is really not lost on me.
Shaunté Newby: Nate's achievements with Leidos are, and will be incredible. The future of our time in space looks brighter than ever. If all goes to plan, NASA will land another human on the moon by 2024. It will also be historic in that it will be the first time in history that a woman and a person of color will set foot on the surface.
As we've learned in our conversation with Nate, IT and IT infrastructure play an incredibly important part of that, especially in our modern world. That's why Nate and his team at Leidos are so crucial to our new and exciting missions.
If you want to learn more about the IT side of things, I encourage you to visit leidos.com/nasa-it. If you want to learn more about NASA missions, you can go to nasa.gov/specials/artemis. Both of those links will be in the description.
Thank you for joining me on this fascinating first episode of MindSet, a podcast by Leidos. If you liked this and want to learn even more about the incredible tech-sector work going on to push humanity forward, make sure to subscribe to the show. New episodes will be live every two weeks. My name is Shaunté Newby. We'll talk again.