On November 29-30, 2018, in Washington, D.C., the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held the Workshop on the Continuous Improvement of NASA’s Innovation Ecosystem. The workshop was requested by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Office of the Chief Technologist with the goal of identifying actionable and implementable initiatives that could build on NASA’s current innovation culture to reach a future state that will ensure the agency’s continued success in the evolving aerospace environment. Specifically, the National Academies planning committee was charged (see Appendix A) to “organize a workshop focused on understanding barriers to innovation at NASA and providing feedback on NASA’s framework for creating an innovative ecosystem.” In a presentation made during the workshop’s first session, NASA Chief Technologist Douglas Terrier described the context, challenge, and goal of the workshop.
NASA, Terrier noted, is responsible for exploring everything from the surface of Earth to the edges of the observable universe, and that requires an enormous range of capabilities. Over the past 60 years, Terrier said, NASA has been the standard bearer for U.S. leadership in science and technology, and during that time NASA has accomplished an impressive line of firsts in aeronautics, exploration, and scientific discovery, propelled by its particular culture of innovation. In its formative years, NASA’s focus included the advancement of aviation knowledge (and transferring the knowledge to the early aircraft industry) and winning the “space race,” a fast-paced, event-driven mission with the sole purpose of getting there first. The effort required many advanced technologies that did not exist outside of NASA, Terrier said, and the highly competitive atmosphere that developed in the quest for those technologies fostered a culture of self-reliance with the mantra of “failure is not an option.” NASA and its close-knit family of contractors became a tightly integrated engine of innovation that produced a number of breakthrough technologies leading to the modern global airline industry and a successful Moon landing in July 1969.
In the decades that followed, Terrier said, the agency shifted its focus from competition to collaboration. Institutionalizing its culture of self-reliance and continuing its tradition of technology leadership, NASA produced breakthroughs ranging from advanced space telescopes that could probe the secrets of the universe to robotic rovers traveling across the surface of Mars. Starting with the Apollo–Soyuz era and extending to the International Space Station, NASA expanded its reliance on partnership with legacy aerospace contractors and international partners, according to Terrier. Along the way, he continued, NASA learned painful lessons from various failures and loss of life—lessons that became encoded in processes intended to ensure safety and avoid failure. Some have claimed that these processes may have had the unanticipated consequence of reducing flexibility and limiting creativity and agility, he said.
NASA’s self-reliant innovation culture served the agency well for many decades, Terrier said, but today the aeronautics and aerospace landscape is rapidly being disrupted by new developments in technology and new business models. Technology developments in many disciplines, including computing, artificial intelligence, big data, and autonomous devices, are being led by industries outside the aerospace sector. In some cases, other-industry technology investments exceed the investments of NASA and the entire space sector combined by an order of magnitude.
A new generation of space and aviation entrepreneurs backed by abundant private capital are developing independent commercial business models, Terrier continued. Disruptive space technologies, including reusable launch vehicles, small satellites, on-orbit refueling, and in-space assembly, promise to reduce the cost of access to space to a fraction of legacy systems. A rapidly increasing amount of innovation and technology investment is occurring outside NASA’s traditional reach, including in the sciences, aeronautics, and human exploration domains. New approaches for human capital management and the digital transformation of the economy also are influencing NASA’s position on the global playing field.
In addition, Terrier stated that some disciplines have achieved a technology refresh cycle that is measured in months, challenging legacy qualification and certification processes, which operate on a timescale of many years. The ever-growing number of emerging space-faring nations are demonstrating impressive capabilities.
In aggregate, he said, these developments present formidable challenges to NASA’s legacy processes and culture, and the agency has acknowledged that it must adapt if it is to continue its global leadership role. For example, NASA leadership has called for the following:
- Expanding the agency’s innovation ecosystem to take advantage of investments and developments outside its traditional circle;
- Creating agility in its engineering and acquisition processes to accommodate the accelerating pace of technology; and
- Designing a flexible workforce that can adapt skill sets at the rate the technology is evolving.
Therefore the goal of the workshop, Terrier said, is to help address these challenges and, specifically, to identify ways that NASA can maintain its position as a leader in aerospace innovation in coming decades.
In preparation for the appointment of the planning committee and the holding of the workshop, the National Academies held two meetings of experts to conduct a dialogue between members of NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist and invited experts from the government (including NASA science and technology leadership), industry, university, and nonprofit sectors. NASA used those meetings to refine its set of topic areas and determine the questions a workshop could usefully address. A workshop planning committee was subsequently formed and met in August 2018 with NASA, at which time an exceptionally ambitious structure for the workshop was agreed upon that would rely heavily on the extensive organizational training experience of the committee membership. (See Appendix B for agendas of the meetings of experts, in-person committee meetings, and the workshop.) The committee subsequently met weekly by teleconference to plan, develop, and organize the workshop. During this period NASA also worked closely with National Academies project staff to support the workshop development through a variety of activities that included providing information, developing assessments and materials, identifying key NASA participants, and coordinating communications within NASA.
Most of the invited workshop participants fell into one of three groups: the leadership of NASA, leading innovation experts with diverse skill sets and experiences in organizational innovation and development, and individuals representing the type of innovator that NASA hopes to encourage. Those groups of participants worked side by side to assess the issues that this workshop brought to the surface and to exchange ideas and suggestions for the future.
The structure of the workshop differed notably from a standard science or technology workshop organized by the National Academies. In essence, it was a hybrid of a classic workshop activity, where experts from different domains share their knowledge with participants, and an agency retreat where NASA employees (side by side with
outside experts) take part in various exercises designed to encourage reflections and prompt discussions about new ways to ensure a bright future for the agency.
The bulk of the workshop was devoted to a series of parallel breakout sessions and working sections in which the participants were divided into groups of fewer than two dozen. The general purpose of these breakout sessions was to take advantage of the knowledge base, brought by outside experts with considerable experience in optimizing organizational innovation, to enable the NASA attendees to approach issues facing the agency from a fresh perspective and develop new ideas for how to maintain NASA’s innovative excellence. In each breakout session, facilitators led the attendees through a particular exercise—different for each breakout—whose product was a collection of group-generated ideas that had relevance for a particular aspect of the overarching goal of keeping NASA at the forefront of aerospace innovation.
The workshop also included four plenary sessions. One of these was an introductory session in which the goals of the workshop were explained and its format described. The others were devoted to recaps of the breakout sections and discussions of what had been learned.
This proceedings of a workshop summarizes and synthesizes the 2 days of discussions during that workshop. Because of the complex structure of the workshop and the way in which the same topic would often be discussed during multiple sessions, this proceedings does not follow the structure of the workshop exactly; instead, it is organized by topic in a way that captures the rough flow of the workshop but, where beneficial, collects discussions from different parts of the workshop into a single place. Chapter 2, which is based mainly on the opening talk by NASA Chief Technologist Douglas Terrier in the workshop’s first plenary, provides background and context. Chapter 3, which follows two breakout sections in particular, addresses the question of what NASA’s future should look like. Chapter 4, which depends on material that appeared in various parts of the workshop, describes some of the challenges to reaching that future. Chapter 5 may be considered the key chapter by many readers. It is based on the presentations and discussions from four parallel working sections on day two of the workshop, and from those it captures a collection of strategies and tactics that were described for creating NASA’s desired future. Chapter 6 is a look to the future, including statements made by Terrier and other NASA leaders about the steps they intend to take in the near term to get started on the road to that future.
Because of the sensitivity of the discussions at the workshop, participant statements made in the discussion sessions are not attributed to individuals in this proceedings. The attendees were told in the first plenary that they could speak freely without concerns that their words could be traced to them, so they are typically not identified with their remarks in these proceedings. However, the comments made by the outside experts making presentations or leading discussions are attributed to those individuals, as are the comments made by the individual NASA employees who served as session chairs, as their names were made publicly available on the workshop agenda (Appendix B).
For the workshop to fulfill its goals, a high degree of candor was needed, and strongly urged, on the part of workshop participants. As per the charge, the workshop was largely focused on lessons learned from challenges faced by NASA and other organizations that rely on an innovative workforce, and on areas of potential organizational improvement for NASA. This focus on problem areas at NASA and the other organizations discussed, could, if taken out of context, create an extremely unbalanced view of NASA and those organizations. Thus, it is important to emphasize that even those speakers who made critical comments were careful to frame them as the sorts of weaknesses that can be found in any organization, and many participants in fact expressed considerable admiration for NASA’s legacy as an extremely effective and successful organization. The general context for constructive feedback expressed was that NASA has been and will continue to be an important engine for aerospace innovation in the United States but that it can be even more successful if certain changes are made.
Any opinions expressed in this proceedings of a workshop are those of the individual workshop participants and not of the National Academies. There was no attempt to come to any consensus or to make any formal recommendations, although it was the case that individual workshop participants did draw conclusions and may have expressed their own opinions concerning widespread agreement on certain issues.