On "Barriers to Innovation": NASA isn't allowed 'hail marys'
By Alex "Sandy" Antunes | February 9th 2009 07:07 AM | Print | E-mail
The recent video "Barriers to Innovation" has some great thoughts about the culture of NASA and its barriers to innovation. Arriving from a Johnson Space Center study, the 10 minute video is worth a look. Ultimately, yes, I wish NASA had more of a mad scientist component. I think they're risk averse because that's part of their mandate. Google's founders gave Google "do no evil". Congress gave NASA "don't screw up". NASA takes innovation risks all the time-- but usually late in a mission or on small scales. The older the Mars rovers get, the more risky the missions they'll try. The International Cometary Explorer mission was a fantastic repurposing of an earlier mission to do a comet fly-by. Once a NASA satellite passes its (usually 2 year) primary mission, NASA is happy to get jiggy with things. Unusual observing programs, operating to the equipment limits, repurposing, tackling risky stuff, this happens every day. My own NASA work history is based on 'required innovation'. Typically, I'm brought in a year or so before a satellite launch to ensure that the science end will be up and running by launch so that science will be done. Once, my boss gave me 2 years and 2 people to follow up my idea of inventing a better ops scheduler, just from one meeting and his "okay". So change is possible-- but it's hard and certainly not automatic. And when you have hundreds of millions or more at stake for a big project like 'the shuttle' or 'HST', it's much harder to retool everything on a 'maybe'. The 'maybes' stay for smaller stuff or after we're sure the taxpayers got their dollar's worth. Industry-wide, though, no one does off-the-cuff innovation or throw-and-pray 'hail mary' passes with their core projects. NASA doesn't toss the ISS for inflates on a whim, but they did research them, then licensed the concept. Detroit doesn't ditch gas cars for electrics, but they did design some. The DoD doesn't instantly swap tanks for robots, but they did have DARPA do studies on 'bots. Google didn't ditch search to retool itself as an auction site, but they did toy with auctions around the edges of their core business. Perhaps the new space age, with folks like Scaled Composites and SpaceX and Bigelow, is just the opportunity we mad scientists need to be agents of change. And hopefully the NASA video, by raising the issue, will open up more innovation in NASA culture. But just as NASA is neither perfect nor totally flawed, so too change is neither always good nor something to be avoided. The trick for space research will always be finding the balance between what we know works, and what dreams we simply have to risk trying.