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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

David Miranda, innovation point of contact for the Exploration Ground Systems Program’s Operations Division, offers tips for unleashing innovation.

In a conversation with guest moderator Angelo Conner, an analyst on the Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) Program, Miranda discusses ways to spark cultural innovation and how some of the concepts have been applied within the EGS Program.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • Barriers to innovation
  • Actions to help drive cultural innovation
  • Ways to encourage new ideas


Related Resources

Exploration Ground Systems

Article: Spaceport Innovators Keep on Innovating

APPEL Courses:

Creativity and Innovation (APPEL-C&I)

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving (APPEL-CTPS)


David Miranda Credit: NASA

David Miranda
Credit: NASA

David Miranda has been with NASA for 11 years and is currently a Senior Technologist in the Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA Headquarters. Over the course of his diverse career Miranda has worked on multiple discrete event simulation projects for the Constellation Program, has led the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Spaceport Innovators group, and has been the NASA lab manager for KSC Design Visualization and a project lead for KSC software development projects. In recent years he served as project manager for the Integrated Display and Environmental Awareness System (IDEAS) project, which was one of the 2017 winners of the agency’s prestigious Space Technology Mission Directorate Innovation Award. More recently he served as the Exploration Ground Systems Program’s Innovation Point of Contact, Continuous Improvement Manager and Analytics Lead, and led a group of engineers who conduct decision-critical analyses for the program. Miranda holds a B.S. in aerospace engineering and master’s degrees in industrial engineering and business administration from the University of Central Florida.


David Miranda: Something different that has impact – that’s what innovation means to me.

An idea alone is not an innovation. An idea that has been implemented in some form is an innovation.

What they’re actually looking for is really something beyond the metric. It’s something about the culture and about learning the lessons.

Deana Nunley (Host): You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

Unleashing Innovation is the topic of today’s episode, based on a presentation given to the Exploration Ground Systems Program’s Operations Division management during a recent strategy session.

David Miranda, the innovation point of contact for the EGS Operations Division, recommended specific actions to help drive cultural innovation and success in the important mission of getting humans into deep space. 

He shared his thoughts about unleashing innovation during a conversation with guest moderator Angelo Conner, an analyst on the Exploration Ground Systems Program.

Angelo Conner (Guest Moderator): When you think about NASA, you think about space exploration and the development of technologies, and moving forward and progress, which would seem to be innovation itself. So how is what we are talking about with innovation different than this idea that NASA does innovative things, because we’re dealing with space exploration and these really interesting, progressive types of things?

Miranda: So, yes, it’s true that NASA does innovative things. NASA has to do innovative things because our mission is totally unique. It’s something that literally no one has done before, and so you have to do new things. But my efforts have to do with trying to move an organization that has a mission that requires innovation, but is also a multi-decade-old organization that has, I would say, maybe developed a crust around it that is a barrier to innovation. 

Back in the 2011-2012 time frame, I worked with an agency team that was trying to identify what were the barriers to being innovative within NASA. What we found, we found seven themes within the organization, which were true for the agency and I’ve seen them be true in many other organizations I’ve worked within NASA internally.

Those seven themes were: we’re a very risk-averse culture. No: 1. We’ve had issues in the past. We’ve had accidents. People have been hurt and killed. So that’s led to a culture that’s become very risk-averse. Risk aversion is good to a degree, but that’s a big barrier to innovation because innovation requires risk-taking. So No. 1, that risk-averse culture was an issue.

We also found – maybe related to the risk aversion – is we had a lack of opportunity. Many times we found that our workforce wanted to be innovative. They had ideas, but there was a lack of opportunity for them to go try their ideas out, because innovation requires trying things. And the idea may work and the idea may not work, but you’ve got to try it out.

Another one we found was what we called organizational inertia. The organization kind of gets in the way of moving forward with innovative ideas. We’ve also had communication challenges with the organization. We are an agency spread across the entire country, working with partners all around the world and, obviously, around the world there’s different cultures, but even within the United States there’s different cultures and ways that we communicate, and even inside of our centers. Kennedy Space Center is a gigantic center. You actually have to drive 15 minutes to get from one side of the center to the other. So we have communication issues that get in the way of innovation.

We also tend to have a short-term focus, and that really has a lot to do with how we are funded. We tend to be funded in one- to two-year increments. So we tend to focus on one to two years on the small scale. Obviously, on the large scale, we’re planning out missions 30 years in the future, but there’s a lot of focus on the short-term, which is really counter to being innovative.

We also have issues with our processes. Part of that crust that I mentioned earlier, we’ve overloaded ourselves with process after process after process, which really ties into continuous improvement, which a lot of it is focused on process improvement, so we can remove that crust. Keep processes that make sense, obviously. There’s a lot of lessons learned that are applicable and that we need to use to improve how we do work, but sometimes there’s things that are just not applicable anymore. So we need to reduce that crust and really innovate on process.

The last theme that we identified was instability. This has a lot to do with the fact that we have missions that because of funding issues or personnel changes or government changes, that there’s a certain instability that makes it difficult to plan long-term. So these are really the barriers to innovation that we found back in 2012, and these are the type of things that we need to overcome to become an innovative organization that is focused on creating and developing new things that make us better at succeeding at our mission.

Conner: Maybe it would help if we define what we’re talking about with innovation, because we might think that things that are new are innovation or maybe it has to do with technology or something like that.

Miranda: A lot of times when people think of innovation, they think of technology. I know at least here at NASA that’s definitely the case. We’re a very technology-focused organization, so when people hear innovation, they equate that with technology. Technologies can definitely be innovations, but innovations are not only technologies. Innovations can be processes. They can be anything.

So for me, the definition of innovation is something different that has impact. There’s some key words there. The first part is something. Notice I didn’t say technology. It’s something, really anything. Then another key word is different. It’s not something that you had before and you made a slight improvement to. It’s something different. It’s an actual change.

Then the next word I want to focus on that definition is impact, so something different that has impact. So impact means you actually have to do something. An idea alone is not an innovation. An idea that has been implemented in some form is an innovation. So that’s the first part of being impactful, actually having an action that creates something or does something.

Then the other part of impact is that there needs to be measurable results to the impact. If there’s no measurable results, there wasn’t impact. It was just a thing.

Then the other last part I want to focus on here in this definition of something different that has impact is the words different and impact are not defined by you as the innovator, but defined by others. Others define — your customers, your users, your stakeholders — they’re the ones that define what different means. They’re the ones that say, “Yes, this is actually different than what we’ve done before.” And they’re also the ones that define, “Yes, this had an impact,” or not.

So, again, that definition is something different that has impact. That’s what innovation means to me. That’s what I’ve been communicating, and I think that’s what we’re trying to pursue here in Exploration Ground Systems.

Conner: So now with the Exploration Ground Systems focus on kind of breaking down those barriers, kind of chipping away at the crust that is counter to an innovative culture, there are some innovation initiatives that are being rolled out here. Can you tell us a little bit about the Light the Fire initiative? 

Miranda: Yeah. The Light the Fire event was an idea that came from our deputy program manager, Jennifer Kunz, because she was looking for ways to encourage our workforce to contribute new ideas and actual new innovations. She found that we had been doing a lot of things the way they’ve always been done, and she had the sense that our workforce had ideas, but they weren’t necessarily communicating them.

Part of the sense came from we have a federal government employee viewpoint survey that’s given to all federal employees, civil servants. In it, it saw that a large percentage of the NASA workforce and also a large percentage of the Exploration Ground Systems workforce said they had ideas, but there seemed to be a gap from we have a lot of ideas to actually having the ideas be implemented. It seems a lot of people were focused on their day-to-day job, just getting the job done, and there was kind of that lack of opportunity to do something with that idea, with this new idea.

So she had seen an event that goes on at our annual Innovation Expo, where we talk about innovation within Kennedy Space Center, an event called KickStart, where people were able to present their idea to a panel of judges, similar in style to the “Shark Tank” you see on TV. The judges review the ideas, and they pick the best ideas and give them a small amount of seed funding to go do that idea. That’s what KickStart is.

Then we saw also our local Commercial Crew Program also had a similar concept to get ideas out of the workforce and get their ideas implemented. So she saw that, and so she had this idea for this Light the Fire event. Of course, in true NASA fashion, FIRE is an acronym, and that stands for Find Improvements to Realize Exploration. So she had this idea, and around the same time where she was thinking about this idea, I came to her office hours to discuss with her some of my efforts to implement continuous improvement within our program. 

She heard what I was proposing and she said, “Wow. That really fits in really well with this idea that I have about this event that’s similar to the KSC KickStart that we do on Innovation Expo, that’s similar to the “Shark Tank” you see on TV. Are you interested in helping out with this?” And, of course, me being interested in innovation and interested in these type of things, and of course when it’s your boss’s, boss’s boss asking you, I was, “Yes. I will definitely help with this.”

So the Light the First event was exactly that. We asked everyone in the workforce, whether it’s our civil servants, our contractors from different organizations, and we asked them, “Do you have an idea that can make the program better? If you do, we have a simple form. Submit your idea, and then you’ll have the opportunity to present to your management the concept, and if you’re selected, several things will happen.

The first thing that will happen is if your idea is selected for implementation, you get a $500 prize. That’s $500 that goes in your pocket. It’s an award for thinking of this great idea, submitting this idea, and presenting it to management.”

The second thing, which was actually the thing that I heard from the employees that motivated them the most, was we will go try and implement that idea. That’s really big, because a lot of employees feel that they have ideas, but no one is really listening. They’re not really going to do anything about it. But here was something in writing, with the top bosses supporting it, the top bosses reviewing the proposals, saying, “We’re going to go try this idea out.” So that’s what the program was.

We’re at the early stages of that. We had the event where everyone gave two-minute pitches to a panel of judges, and then management reviews. They pick their favorites and then the winners are announced. That’s how we did it. It’s pretty simple. Right now, we’re in the process of getting these ideas implemented.

Conner: What are some of the next steps in order to ensure the success? Or is that really an appropriate thing to say, that we’re trying to ensure the success? We’re just trying to help these innovative ideas progress forward, right?

Miranda: Yeah. I mean the key thing is that – how do we define success? I think how we define success is have we done something to make the program better? Now, that doesn’t mean that the idea worked and the idea itself made the program better. What does make the program better is that we tried the idea and that we learned something from that effort, and simply learning that that doesn’t work is something that moves the program forward, because it moves us forward in the sense that we tried this one thing and it didn’t work because of X, Y and Z. These pieces, A, B and C did work, and it allows you to pursue A, B and C, and now, say, X, Y and Z, the way we tried it didn’t necessarily work. So that’s how you define success.

Then that’s just on the idea part of it. The other part of it is from a cultural aspect. Success is showing the workforce that we listened to their ideas and we actually tried them, because we want to encourage people to keep coming up with ideas and not hold them back, and go forward and try it. That’s the key part. So there’s two parts.

There’s success in terms of we tried something and it either worked or it didn’t, and if it didn’t, here’s why it didn’t and maybe we can try something different. So that moves us forward. And the second part is we showed that we were willing to try things and we can move the culture forward, so that our organization is willing to try new things, and get everyone working together to innovate our way to Mars and to the moon and to all our deep space destinations.

Conner: When you say that even if something is not successful in terms of it doesn’t work necessarily, it can still be successful in that it helps to move the program forward. It helps us progress. Is there kind of a danger if we have too many ideas that come along, when we’re continually trying to change, and the good things stay and the bad things just kind of die, where if we have too many ideas that aren’t successful in that way, is there a danger that we might ever get into a place where management maybe feels a reticence or they might feel like things have been wasted? We spent too much time. We spent too much money. We’re doing these new things that helped us progress maybe, but didn’t work actually, that they might start to build a barrier again, that they might seem to shut down and be less open to these innovative ideas.

Miranda: There’s definitely that danger. I think that’s a lot of times what happens in many organizations, is that, “We spent money here and I don’t really see …” They don’t see the effect. So, because as I mentioned, there’s two things. There’s the success of the idea and the lessons you learned and the cultural piece. I would argue that the cultural piece is the biggest one, and seeing cultural change is very difficult, especially if you’re in it. You can see culture change if you’re there at year-one and you see the organization, and you come back year-five and say, “Oh, there’s real change.” But if you’re in it, you don’t see it. So they won’t even see that one, and that’s maybe the most important one.

So what they will see is exactly what you’re describing. They’ll see some projects succeed, in terms of they achieved their technical objectives, and then they’ll see some projects that don’t succeed, and even though we may have learned something from it, it’s harder to measure. You can say if I had ten and two succeeded and eight didn’t, the metric says two succeeded. You don’t see in the metric – it’s not as easy to see in the metric that eight of them had a lot of valuable lessons learned.

And really, those are the numbers you’re going to be seeing, because the majority of these ideas will actually not technically succeed. You just look at, for example, a new business, for example. So going outside of NASA, a new business is basically a form of innovation and, as we know, most new businesses will fail, and that’s what’s going to happen here, too. So your metrics are going to look like that, exactly as you’re describing, and that can get management scared, of course, because they’re spending on something that the metrics are showing the pure metrics of success versus not success are poor.

Management and the workforce in general, truly, needs to understand that’s what’s going to happen, and that what they’re actually looking for is really something beyond the metric. It’s something about the culture and about learning the lessons. So yeah, it’s a true danger, but the way you face that danger head-on is understanding what it really means. Those lessons, the things that move us forward on the things that we can succeed on, those are the things that are the true measures of success. They are not going to be measured by a number, but by learning and making the organization smarter.

Conner: So what are your next steps then in EGS to help kind of solidify this culture that you’re trying to create?

Miranda: There are several things that are going on, and it’s not just me. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m the innovation guru. I’m just one person. So, for example, even with our – Light the Fire event. There were other people working with me that helped me be successful.

Conner: Right. When we use “we” and “you,” it’s the royal we and the royal you.

Miranda: Yes, the royal we. We, as an organization, what are we doing to move innovation forward? We’re doing several things. First of all, this Light the Fire event is not a one-time event. We’re going to do this again. It was a great success, a lot of positive feedback, a lot of excitement around it. So we’re going to continue that.

We’re also going to work towards making sure that the projects that were selected, that they can get the word out as to what they’re doing, both when they’re successful on their technical goals or not successful on their technical goals. We make sure that the lessons from those efforts are widely understood. So we’re going to make sure we go to our different management meetings, and make sure that word gets spread out through there and through other forums.

Conner: That might be a good all-hands kind of presentation as well.

Miranda: Absolutely. In fact, we actually had an all-hands recently, where Jennifer Kunz, who had the idea for the Light the Fire activity, she announced the winners. So that’s a big deal, just giving people recognition. That’s a great way to get other people to say, “Hmm. Wow. Those people are getting recognition. This is something that I want to be involved with.” So that’s another piece.

Another thing we’re doing is we’re trying to improve communication. I mentioned one of the barriers to innovation was communication challenges. So we’re trying to break the barrier of communication within our own organization. So we’re having conversations across the organizations and finding out who are our innovation thought leaders within our organization, and helping them be successful at what they’re trying to do.

Then the other things we’re doing is we’re trying to plant seeds in each of our different divisions within our program, and those seeds are being planted by what we call improvement evangelists. These are people that will exist within each of our divisions within the program, and their job will be dedicated to spreading the word of improvement and innovation.

We’re going to get them trained. We’re going to get them trained on improvement initiatives and how those are done. But what their job is, is to make sure that when someone in their organization has a great idea that they have someone they can go talk to, someone that can help them work through it and make sure we at least discuss the idea and, if possible, try they idea.

So it’s not just Jennifer Kunz, our deputy program manager, or our program manager, Mike Bolger, or our front office management or my boss, your boss. It’s everyone, from the top to the bottom that needs to be onboard with this innovation message and understand that there is a want for it, there’s a need for it, and there are opportunities to make it happen. It’s not just an idea that stays in your mind. It’s an idea that can actually have impact and become an innovation.

Conner: Thank you very much for taking this time to talk with us today. Is there any kind of final word, final kind of thought that you’d like to leave us?

Miranda: Sure. My final thoughts would be that it’s important to say that innovation is not a single person’s job. You’re talking to me today about innovation because I’ve been involved with these efforts, but there isn’t a person that owns innovation. Innovation is something that is inherent or really should be inherent to every single job that’s done here. That’s the message we’re trying to communicate, is that innovation is something that everyone needs to be involved with. Everything in our job can be innovated, from the rocket engine that gets us to Mars to the paperwork you have to fill out to go on travel. Everything should be innovated. Everything should be looked at as something that can be innovated. We all need to have that mindset. That’s the only way we’re going to be a successful organization, is if we are all doing this together and all innovating together.

Deana Nunley (Host): Thanks again to David Miranda, and to Angelo Conner for serving as guest moderator.

For David’s bio and more information about innovation and the Exploration Ground Systems Program as well as a transcript of this podcast episode, please visit

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Thanks for listening.