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.
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.
For all the space nerds out there, here’s a collection of my favorite stories/topics about space:
- The Computer of the Saturn V – Woven By Hand
- Mars Perseverance Rover – Landing Using a Sky-Crane
- Apollo 11 – Landed with 15 Seconds of Fuel Left
- James Webb Space Telescope Launching Soon
- Voyager Twitter Account – Updates with Distance From Earth
- Sound of STS-Discovery Launch (saw one as a kid from spectator box – imagine fireworks going off with sound waves hitting your chest for a solid 60 seconds)
- Slow-Motion View of Saturn V Launch w/ Commentary
- NASA – How We Are Going to the Moon – Artemis Mission