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June 30, 2009 Vol. 2, Issue 6


An appetite for risk, flatter hierarchies, leaders with “dirty hands,” and more public/private partnerships are the key ingredients for a blast of aerospace innovation, according to a multi-sector panel convened by the George C. Marshall Institute.

Aerospace rode a wave of innovation in the 1950s and 1960s, but has since been overshadowed by the more recent wave of innovation experienced by the information technology (IT) industry. Speaking on June 16 at the National Press Club, representatives from NASA, the private aerospace sector, and academia discussed a renaissance of innovation in the aerospace industry and what lessons the IT industry might provide.

Embracing risk and the possibility of failure is central to sparking innovation. Companies like Google are able to test and debug new programs with fairly low risk, and can learn and improve upon their code from these tests. Taking a page from this textbook, NASA needs to nurture a culture where risk is acceptable on smaller projects, said Doug Comstock, Director of NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program. “If you’re not failing occasionally, you’re not trying hard enough,” said Comstock.

However, the price of failure in IT is not the same as it is for aerospace. Once a rocket leaves the launch pad, debugging is nearly impossible and the cost of failure is high. One way to close this “price gap” is by establishing a proper marketplace, offers Chris Kemp, Chief Information Officer at NASA Ames Research Center. With an established marketplace, the number of launches increases, the cost of launch decreases, and, consequently, the risk at the smaller scale becomes more acceptable. “We need to develop an ecosystem of demand” — like those established for satellite radio and GPS navigation — “a functioning market place will spur innovation and lower risk,” he said. Kemp says engineers will benefit from the iterative processes or cycles that a marketplace would create. Increasing the pace of development of projects from five to ten years to one to five years, and decreasing cost from billions to millions will decrease the cost of failure. As an added benefit, he said, engineers would go through more project iterations, thus fueling the fire for more innovation.

Developing flatter hierarchies is another IT industry characteristic which effectively spurs innovation, says Tim Hughes, Vice President of SpaceX. Ways to achieve this include maintaining a high engineer-to-manager ratio and encouraging managers and engineers to work together to create an office environment without offices or walls. Hughes believes this hierarchical “flatness” is a key to igniting innovation.

Another ingredient, panelists agreed, is increasing the number of public-private partnerships. Comstock emphasized the importance of building networks of organizations with common interests so the public sector can utilize technology from the outside, such as using lithium cell phone batteries in aerospace, and disperse technology from within, like the Hubble technology being used for breast cancer detection.

Kemp noted that at Ames, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, innovation flows from openness, collaboration, and maintaining multiple interfaces with other industry partners. These components allow for recruitment and utilization of the “best of breed,” rather than having to develop all capabilities in-house.

Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, suggested the need for a revolving door between engineers in government and the private sector. IT software engineers hold a greater number of positions in their careers, while most aerospace engineers tend to hold a fewer number of positions, he noted. Changing scenery, working on different projects, and working with different people all help to fuel innovation. “You don’t know where innovation is going to happen,” he said, so the aerospace industry must always be on the lookout.


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