The workshop’s opening session set the stage for the 2 days of activities and explained the goals of the workshop. The session began with remarks by Melanie Saunders, NASA’s acting deputy associate administrator, offering a broad overview of innovation at NASA. This was followed by a talk from Douglas Terrier, NASA’s chief technology officer, who provided some historical context and explained the challenges facing NASA today in its quest to remain at the forefront of innovation.
NASA’s success depends on its ability to continuously innovate, Saunders said, and she offered the International Space Station (ISS) as a model of that. Over its lifetime, she said, many of the components of the space station have been reengineered and replaced, so that while many of its parts are original, many others are updated. Similarly, the software used on the space station, many of its instruments, and even the operational procedures have been modified over time. So it is much like a living, growing organism whose cells are constantly being replenished. “I like to think of that as a good model of how important it is to have innovation over the entire life cycle of a mission,” Saunders said. “It’s not just for the beginning, thinking up new technologies to start a mission.”
In the coming decades, NASA will be bringing a host of new technologies with new capabilities online, she said, mentioning such things as the Space Launch System, or SLS, a heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle that will be used for deep space exploration, as well as the lunar-orbiting Gateway platform and the James Webb Space Telescope.
The success of these projects will depend on NASA’s ability to continue to embrace innovation as it has, Saunders said. “I like to think that NASA has always been a fairly innovative organization,” she continued. “We have some of the most talented scientists and engineers in government, but there’s always room for improvement. However well we’re doing, we’re always looking for that next best thing we can do.”
In recent years, she said, NASA has made a number of changes in response to the disruptions that have been occurring in the technology landscape. For example, because of the speed with which technology is evolving, NASA is seeking to create “a flexible and scalable workforce that can be more adaptable to changing skill sets as technology evolves.” One specific change that Saunders mentioned is the institution of some “radical initiatives” aimed at making it possible to hire new workers in days rather than months. “In government, a month is a pretty good thing,” she said, “but the private sector—which is who we’re really competing against for talent—has a much more nimble and agile hiring practice.”
Similarly, NASA is working to change its acquisition practices and streamline its processes for certifying spaceflight hardware for flight. For example, she said, a couple of years ago the Johnson Space Center put in place a new process certifying payloads that was more risk-based and streamlined. The safety of the crew on spaceflights remains paramount, she said, and so anything that has the potential to affect that safety must still be carefully vetted. But it is possible to spend less time on the certification of scientific experiments. “It’s not as critical if an experiment doesn’t succeed,” she said. “We want to make sure we produce the conditions that would cause it to succeed, but that allows us to streamline by quite a bit some of the testing required and some of the integration and to reduce the overall timeline to get things through certification and into orbit.”
Finally, NASA is expanding its collaborations with private industry in order to take advantage of the growing amount of private funding of technological innovations. The agency is particularly interested, she said, in working with companies that are outside its traditional circle of industry partners.
In closing, Saunders said, “Our goal is to continue to be somebody that people benchmark on innovation for excellence in innovation throughout the rest of this century and beyond.”
Terrier opened his presentation with a blunt assessment of the challenge facing the agency. “We’re at a fork in the road,” he said, “not because NASA has suddenly started to do something different, but because the world is doing something very different in technology and culture and everything else. . . . And we’re really at a decision point about how we’re going to adapt to that.”
To offer some context for the decisions facing NASA, Terrier began by offering a definition of innovation: it is “turning ideas into value.” In other words, he said, innovation at NASA should always be approached from the point of view of what value it offers to the agency.
That mission is twofold, as codified in the NASA Space Act, he explained. The first part of the mission is to advance the boundaries of human exploration and to extend human knowledge. The second—and equally important—part is to do that in a way that provides economic returns to Americans and improves their quality of life.
With this in mind, the goal of the workshop was also twofold according to Terrier. One aim is to understand how NASA can stay in a leadership role as human and robotic exploration move further into space. The second is to determine how to maintain that leadership role in a way that “enables fertile conditions for commercial success and academic success behind it.”
Successful innovation requires a constant stream of new technologies, and NASA’s innovators delivered. “We’ve had a 60-years-long unbroken line of firsts,” Terrier said. “First landing on the Moon, the space shuttle, the International Space Station, robotic missions to every planet in the solar system, and then, of course, our incredible telescopes looking both at Earth and out into the solar system. All of that has been built on a solid foundation of NASA’s innovation.”
Those innovations in turn have led to the creation of a multi-trillion-dollar aerospace industry, built in large part on knowledge generated by NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Terrier believes that NASA continues to have a catalytic role in that area.
NASA has a unique position in the country, Terrier said. “We are the flagship, we are the standard bearer for American innovation and American leadership,” he said. “It is an incredible role.” Terrier spoke of interacting with leaders at the Department of Defense in the national security arena. “They recognize that we have that leadership role,” he said, “and they’re very concerned that we continue to project that leadership role.” NASA also plays an important role in projecting American values around the world, he added.
That legacy of accomplishment has not come without a cost, Terrier noted. “We’ve had some very painful failures,” he said, and with each failure NASA would study what went wrong and institute safety measures to ensure that such an accident would never happen again. That commitment to safety is a good thing, he said, but it can lead
to a certain amount of rigidity in the system, and he predicted that this tendency to safety-oriented rigidity will be a challenge in the future, as the agility to respond to a rapidly changing world becomes increasingly important.
As NASA moves toward that future, the broad outlines of its path are clear, Terrier said. The administration and Congress have consistently emphasized the importance of the cis-lunar environment—that is, the areas from Earth’s surface out to the Moon’s orbit. Much of NASA’s overall direction is provided by the National Space Council, which consists of the NASA Administrator; the Secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce, Transportation, and Homeland Security; the Vice President; the National Security Adviser, and the Homeland Security Adviser; the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget; and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thus, Terrier said, there is a whole-of-government approach to how NASA is pursuing its cis-lunar activities.
In particular, he said, the space council’s overarching policy guidance has three emphases: (1) returning humans to the Moon and on to Mars “for sustainable development of that frontier,” (2) streamlining regulations for commercial access to and opportunity in space, and (3) space traffic management, or “how we manage space traffic and the space environment.” Taken together, he said, those goals indicate the government clearly views the cis-lunar environment as the next frontier, adding that he believes this to be a bipartisan view. It is important for both the economic security and the national security of the United States that this country—and NASA, in particular—show leadership in moving into the cis-lunar environment, he concluded.
With that, Terrier spoke briefly about some of NASA’s current projects, which he divided into four groups. The first is commercializing space. The ISS, which now has 18 years of accrued operation, is doing great work, he said. “We’ve had now the opportunity to see a real example of commercializing low Earth orbit with commercial cargo transportation.” The second group of projects he described as “developing the Moon, on to Mars.” He mentioned that there was to be an announcement that afternoon about commercial partnership for a robotic landing on the Moon. And there will be a Gateway in lunar orbit that will serve as a staging point for exploration of the lunar surface, with small and mid-sized craft landing on the Moon, leading to humans once again landing on the lunar surface in the coming years. Third are NASA’s science missions. “I don’t think we’ve had this many simultaneous activities going on at one time,” he said, listing such things as the InSight Mars lander, the Parker solar probe, and the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be coming online in 2019. Finally, concerning NASA’s aviation activities, he said that it is the first time in the 15 years that he has worked at NASA that there are three named X planes being developed at the same time: the X-56, X-57, and X-59.
NASA’s history shows that it has gotten good results from the approach it has developed over the decades, Terrier said. That does not guarantee, however, that the same approach will be as successful in the future. NASA is facing a very different world today than it operated in 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago, Terrier said, so “maybe those approaches need to be changed.”
Terrier then listed a number of major differences between the environment in which NASA is operating today and the environment in which it operated for most of its existence. “The first thing is,” he said, “we don’t have $45 billion, $50 billion Apollo-level budgets in today’s dollars to throw at one event. We have dozens of programs and a very flat budget.” Succeeding in dealing with today’s challenges will require doing things in a smarter way. Second, there is far more innovation taking place in the world now than decades ago. “We grew up in a NASA culture where . . . we got everybody in a room and we figured it out,” Terrier said. “That was an era where we were leading in a lot of technologies by necessity because they weren’t invented.” That is no longer the case, Terrier said. He showed a graph of the 100 most innovative companies today by sector (Figure 2.1). The most innovative sector was semiconductors and electronic components, with 14 of the world’s most innovative companies, followed by chemicals (13), computer hardware (11), and consumer products (9). The aerospace industry, with only 3 of the 100 most innovative companies, was far down the list. “There’s a lot of stuff going on,” he commented, “and most of it is not only not going on at NASA, but not even in aerospace. That’s really different than it was.”
Adding to that is the accelerating pace of innovation. Whereas 100 years ago there was a paradigm-changing innovation—the telephone, the light bulb, the internal combustion engine, and so on—appearing maybe once a
decade, that pace has quickened to the point that there is “an event occurring every year, basically,” Terrier said. Google, Facebook, YouTube, the iPhone, the iPad, driverless cars, the first synthetic cell, the first three-dimensional chip—the pace is unlike anything that has ever been seen before, and it makes it difficult for any big company to keep up. At conferences over the previous few weeks, he said, he had been listening to people from large technology industries address this very topic. “They’re all facing this challenge,” he said, “which is that we have very well understood and very rigid processes that work on decadal timescales from concept to getting something qualified and flown.” But such a long timescale does not work when technology is refreshing every year. “This is a big difference,” he said, “and how to adapt our systems to incorporate these rapidly changing innovations is really a challenge.”
A closely related issue is that the speed of adoption of new technologies is accelerating. “It is not just that people are coming up with great ideas,” he said, “but they’re finding their way into the market even more rapidly.” He illustrated this point with a graph showing the shortening time between the introduction of a technology and when that technology reaches 50 percent penetration (Figure 2.2). Air travel, introduced in 1914, took about 75 years until half the people in the country were using it. Social media, introduced in 2004, took less than a decade. “As soon as something is invented [today], it’s in wide use across the globe,” Terrier said.
One of the most significant changes facing NASA is that it no longer dominates the aerospace sector. Today, the space industry market is up to about $350 billion, depending on how you count it, he said, and NASA’s budget
is about $20 billion, which means it accounts for about 6 percent of the market. It is a very different matter being a leader when you control 6 percent of the market than when you control 70 percent, he said. NASA can be, and will be, a leader in that sector, he predicted, but it will have to be a different kind of leadership.
Hand in hand with this increase in the size of the aerospace sector is the rapidly growing number of participants. For example, there are 58 spaceports licensed around the world, he said, including in South America, the Middle East, and South Asia. Furthermore, he added, “folks are no longer content to sit back and just buy turnkey solutions from the major developed-world providers. They’re indigenously generating their own capabilities.”
An equally important factor is the appearance of disruptive technologies, such as reusable launch vehicles, small satellites, in situ resource use, and on-orbit servicing and assembly. “We use this word ‘disruptive’ a lot,” Terrier said, “but if you can change the cost of access to space by an order of magnitude—as the use of reusable launch vehicles promised to do—that’s a big deal. . . . We see the opportunity to maybe do for a couple of million dollars 90 percent of the mission objectives that would have required a billion-dollar spacecraft a few years ago. That’s a big deal.”
In addition to the changes in the innovation environment that Terrier spoke about, participants heard throughout the meeting that NASA and other innovators are also facing major changes in how organizations interact with one another. In particular, as Geoffrey Parker explained in his keynote address on the workshop’s second day, a number of businesses are focusing on providing platforms for other businesses to interact on, creating vast opportunities for new efficiencies and capabilities (see Box 2.1).
NASA is aware of these challenges, Terrier said, and many people at the agency have been working to address them. “We’ve been working with the Academies over the last year,” he said. “Many of you in the audience have been at your centers and mission directorates doing a lot of great work to try to respond. And I think we are
responding. We are here today to make sure that we’re moving fast enough.” He then offered a few details about what NASA has been doing to respond to these challenges.
One formal effort over the past few years has been aimed at identifying and understanding some of the barriers to innovation that NASA’s workforce faces. The resulting list had seven broad categories of barriers: a risk-averse culture, a short-term focus, instability, a lack of opportunity, process overload, communication challenges, and organizational inertia. “These are artifacts of big organizations,” Terrier said, and they are not unique to NASA.
There have also been a large number of grassroots efforts at various NASA locations to deal with various barriers to innovation. “We looked across what was already in place,” Terrier said, “and saw that there were, perhaps, 147 initiatives—we probably didn’t capture all of them—that were already in place.” Those initiatives were organized in a matrix, with the columns corresponding to the seven categories of barriers and the rows corresponding to various strategies, such as allowing, recognizing, and rewarding innovation; streamlining processes; engaging the public; and creating and operating innovation labs and creative spaces (Figure 2.3). “It’s not clear at this point if we have the right initiatives or the right balance, and we have gaps and so on,” Terrier said, “but there is a lot of work going on, and we think we have a good starting point from which to build.”
The goal of the workshop, Terrier said, is to focus on the top-level things in the chart—that is, the things that are crucial to developing and maintaining the sort of innovation culture that is essential to achieving NASA’s missions—innovative technologies, an innovative workforce, innovative partnering, innovative business, and so on (Figure 2.4). “We want to have a conversation over the next couple of days about what it takes in those areas to achieve the kind of success we want in a future scenario.” Specifically, he said, the focus should be on what it will take to achieve a positive outcome. What should NASA be doing in these various areas? Whatever answers emerge at the workshop will be reported back to the NASA administration and help them organize their efforts.
Terrier summed up his presentation by stating his main points as follows:
- NASA’s self-reliant culture for innovation has served us well for decades, but the technology landscape is rapidly being disrupted by new developments in technology and new business models. “We value solution developers in our culture,” Terrier said. “I’m not sure we value solution seekers in the same way.” But in today’s environment it is often better to look for solutions outside of the agency, he said, “and we need to
- These developments present formidable challenges to NASA’s legacy processes and culture—we must adapt to continue our global leadership. The challenge is particularly formidable, he said, because an effective response will require NASA to make significant cultural changes. Nonetheless, he added, “We have made a good start. I think we are on the way.”
- NASA should expand its innovation ecosystem to leverage investments and developments outside its traditional circle. There is so much innovation being done outside NASA that the agency can greatly benefit from consciously taking advantage of it.
- NASA should create agility in its engineering and acquisition processes to accommodate the accelerating pace of technology. Innovation is moving much more quickly; NASA must be able to match that pace.
- NASA should enable a workforce that can adapt skill sets at the rate of technology evolution. Rapid innovation requires the ability to rapidly acquire new skill sets.
- The goal of this workshop is to identify actionable and implementable approaches that build on NASA’s innovation culture to reach a future state that will ensure our continued leadership in the evolving environment. “We hope to come out of this tomorrow with actionable input,” Terrier said. “I think we’ve got some good things in place, but we think there’s a lot more we can do, and we’re more than open to hearing things we didn’t think of. . . . So please bring those ideas.”
understand where it makes sense to put our energy into seeking them internally and where it makes sense to seek them externally.”
In closing, Terrier returned to the idea of a fork in the road. “There are two paths before us,” he said. “One of them is the path where we stay on the status quo. We cling to our legacy system, and in that path the business school case studies are littered with examples of what that looks like.” As an example of what happens when a
good company stays the course and doesn’t adapt to changing times, he mentioned Kodak, which was among the best and most innovative companies in the world in making film for cameras but which failed to adapt to the advent of digital photography and eventually went bankrupt. “So this isn’t about being good or not good,” he said. “This is about being able to adapt.” And that is the second path before NASA, one in which it moves quickly and smartly and adapts to the changing innovation environment.
That second path is an exciting one, Terrier said. Along that path is a future in which a trillion-dollar industry develops over the next decade with public–private partnerships working on the lunar surface, in lunar space, and in all of the region in between. “We want NASA to be the orchestrator, the leader of that effort,” he said.
Again, Terrier emphasized that NASA having this leadership role will be important to both the economic and national security of the United States. “Only NASA can take that soft-power leadership position and project the values you want to project in that environment,” he said. “The point of today is to ensure that we take that second road,” he concluded. “Our entire leadership is on board with doing that and is looking for input to help us formulate what that looks like.”