Dare Mighty Things

What if I told you there was an organization that invented portable computers, wireless headsets, CAT scans, camera phones, and artificial limbs that struggled with digital transformation for decades? 

I’ll give you a few hints… 

  • It’s an independent agency of the U.S. federal government
  • It was formed in 1958
  • It helped put a human on the moon

The Space Race pushed the U.S. government to establish NASA in order to compete with the USSR. In the pursuit of manned space missions, NASA needed to innovate. These innovations resulted in the miniaturization of camera lenses which led to camera phones. Suit construction technology led to athletic shoes. The need for hands-free communications for astronauts led to wireless headsets. And let’s not leave out memory foam!

Some say necessity is the mother of invention, and NASA needed to invent new technologies in order to “[land] a man on the Moon and [return] him safely to Earth.” My favorite invention was a CO2 scrubber they had to invent in the middle of the Apollo 13 mission using tape, a towel, and other parts. Without this, the astronauts would have died from CO2 poisoning.

NASA also needed to mitigate risk. Three were killed due to an electrical fire on Apollo 1 on the launch pad. Seven were killed in the Challenger disaster and seven more during the Columbia disaster. There is an inherent risk in space travel, therefore certain safeguards must be put in place to ensure the safe return of astronauts. In addition, technologies and parts were developed that would be used for military purposes, therefore secrecy was a priority. Some of these safeguards as well as internal decisions resulted in a hierarchal, siloed organization that developed everything internally.

I am not going to argue that NASA completely failed to innovate. The Saturn V put a man on the moon using less processing power than my phone. They invented new materials and technologies that society benefits from today. They developed the space shuttle, the first reusable vehicle that helped cut costs. But, I believe they failed to implement the cultural and organizational changes needed for digital transformation today. The last space shuttle launch was July 2011, after which NASA paid Russia to send astronauts to the space station. It wasn’t until May 30th, 2020 that a manned space mission launched from the U.S. – on a SpaceX rocket. NASA is currently in the late development stages of its SLS rocket – a new launch vehicle that will send humans to the moon and beyond through the Artemis program. The launch date has again been delayed to early 2022.

I feel like this graphic of NASA’s SLS Program is also promoting digital transformation.

Balancing innovation vs. safety/secrecy, evolving regulations and politics, and reduced funding make NASA an interesting case study for digital transformation. The combination of these factors forced NASA to adopt a model from its inception to the 1990s where it held considerable authority over technology development and made sure collaboration was strictly monitored. Then, in the 1990s, NASA needed to collaborate with other countries to build and launch the International Space Station (check to see where it is right now). As the Cold War came to an end, funding was reduced but collaboration opportunities emerged.

This major shift has resulted in significant changes culturally and organizationally within NASA. What once was an organization that prided itself on achieving the impossible on their own while closely guarding information, now hosts online competitions to develop new technology, collaborates with competitors like SpaceX, employs a Deputy Digital Transformation Officer, and is pushing for a digital culture and mindset. They provide details of this digital transformation in their blog:

NASA’s Digital Transformation is driven by eight goals:

  • Accelerated technical and engineering innovation
  • Increased efficiency and effectiveness of business processes
  • Efficient, reliable, and safe mission systems and missions
  • Real-time, data-driven decision making
  • Agile workforce, facilities, and IT infrastructure
  • Integrated collaboration and partnerships
  • Advancement of exploration, discovery, and science
  • Extended aerospace leadership

Key areas of focus for Digital Transformation at NASA are:

  • Hiring talent with digital competencies
  • Cloud computing
  • Agile Software Development (DevOps/DevSecOps)
  • Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality
  • Mobile Access
  • Social Media
  • Internet of Things

It seems that necessity is the mother of reinvention. NASA needed to reinvent itself as it faced challenges. It followed a top-down and bottom-up approach by adding a digital transformation officer and seeking digitally competent talent that bought into the mindset of “fail fast, as long as we fail forward.” Facing new competition from private companies, NASA embraced partnerships with them and stayed true to their motto: For the Benefit of All. NASA has always sought to attract top talent, and now understands that the future of work is an integral part to attracting and retaining talent.

On February 18th, 2021, the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars. A parachute with a strange design deployed during the landing sequence and soon after people realized a code was embedded in the design. The design translated to the coordinates of JPL headquarters as well as a simple message: Dare Mighty Things. For me, I hope NASA continues to Dare Mighty Things as they have indicated with their pursuit of digital transformation, and I believe other organizations can follow their lead, taking one small step that can lead to a giant leap.

Dare Mighty Things — G. S. Jennsen

For all the space nerds out there, here’s a collection of my favorite stories/topics about space:


Sources:

https://hbr.org/2018/04/the-reinvention-of-nasa

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/infographics/20-inventions-we-wouldnt-have-without-space-travel

https://www.forbes.com/sites/hannahmayer/2021/02/14/from-mission-control-to-mission-connect-how-nasa-is-repositioning-itself-with-digital-transformation/?sh=6a9015ac2461

https://www.esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Sets/International_Space_Station_infographics/(result_type)/images

https://blogs.nasa.gov/futureofwork/2019/04/15/digital-transformation/

https://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/what-is-digital-transformation-and-why-is-nasa-doing-it.html

https://blogs.nasa.gov/futureofwork/2019/10/17/a-marketplace-for-talent/

13 comments

  1. You bring up great points. I’m sure funding in general has gone down for NASA and that impacts their digital transformation as well. Now that I think about it, when I was younger, NASA was a lot more prevalent in society. I hardly hear anything about what they do nowadays. Another thought is maybe NASA should considering partnering with tech companies to innovate and contribute to society.

  2. Interesting post! It aligns really well with tonights guest speaker as well as the presentations in class. I was surprised to see that NASA was not as digitally transformed as I thought it would be. This drives home the point that companies who believe there is still room for development will re emerge, compete and will easily be able to reinvent themselves as opposed to companies that feel they have reached the height of digital maturity. I’m curious to see what’s next as NASA goes on to dare mighty things.

  3. Very cool post on a great topic! I’d be curious to know what your thoughts are on the “space force” :) All kidding aside, NASA has some of the best and brightest over the past half-century, but they have taken a back seat to private industry in recent years. The emergence of companies such as SpaceX show that privatization of industry does promote more efficient processes. Would love to see NASA focus on a singular objective such as reaching Mars to propel (pun intended) the next age of space exploration.

    1. My two cents on Space Force – space has always been a place for a military presence. Think military satellites but also civilian satellites that provide essential services. China is currently building the Tiangong space station, attempting to establish a bigger presence in LEO. Space Force can serve to protect valuable assets in orbit. If you are interested in a cool Space Force project – check out the X-37B.

  4. This was an awesome blog and interesting topic that I wouldn’t have thought much about otherwise. The CO2 scrubber anecdote is pretty wild. I’d be curious to hear more about why Social Media is an area of focus in DT for NASA. Is it as a recruiting tool to get the best minds to be more interested in NASA? A way to share info? I just can’t wrap my head around it the way I could a traditional business who may be trying to sell something via social as well.

    1. That’s a good question about social media. I think since it’s an agency funded by taxpayer money, it’s important to be viewed as an important organization that benefits society. If trust in NASA or the perceived value of NASA deteriorates, they lose funding. Any chance they can promote themselves as a forward-thinking, valuable agency, then that will help them. Also doesn’t hurt to attract younger talent.

  5. There are so many things I liked about this post! I am genuinely fascinated by NASA’s ability to recognize its limitations and helping in fostering a culture of collaboration with other nations’ space agencies and private entities. I am also really impressed by the way they changed their culture and understood that humans could push the limits and discover new things with the help of new digital realities.

  6. Great topic, Parker! I really enjoyed readying your blog. I wish society gave NASA more credit for the unspoken advancements they’ve made for humankind. I would love to be a fly on the wall at NASA during a brainstorming session.

    Another forward looking opportunity NASA and other space stations have worked on is food production and longevity. For example, the Israel station was the first to grow lab meat in space. Here’s a few articles if it peaks your interest!

    https://www.space.com/meat-grown-in-space-station-bioprinter-first.html#:~:text=For%20the%20first%20time%20ever%2C%20meat%20was%20created%20in%20space,lab%2Dgrown%20meat%20in%20space.

    https://www.businessinsider.com/meat-grown-in-space-with-3d-printer-2019-10

    1. Very cool @biancadonald5! Thanks for sharing. 3d printing has some cool applications in space. You could email a part design up the ISS, then it would print it out. Soon you might be able to email a burger to space!

  7. What a great post! I would actually argue that NASA needed to change its form of innovation in relation to digital technology. I love the scenes in Apollo 13 when flight controls calculated using slide rules. As space flight became more digitized (and skewed toward unmanned flight), it changed how they needed to innovate. Mars Rover was one of the outstanding successes of this process.

  8. There’s actually a (admittedly, b-grade) sci-fi series called the “Bobiverse” that’s premised on AI using 3d printers to replicate and explore the cosmos.

  9. This blog post is AMAZING 🤩
    I am one of those nerds ( you can realize by taking a look at my profile photo xD ) Really enjoyed reading your blog. I found the message in the parachute so interesting, I didn’t know that!
    What do you think about space travel? Are we getting to Mars anytime soon?

    1. For space travel…beam me up! As for getting to Mars soon, I think in our lifetime but not anytime soon. What I am excited about in relation to getting to Mars is all the tech that is needed to accomplish that could help society. Landing on the moon was an incredible accomplishment, but I would argue the greatest benefits were all the underlying technologies that were then commercialized to improve our lives. Example: solar panels and better battery technology.

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