How about NASA's Grand Challenge?

Last September the President laid out his Strategy for American Innovation. The strategy is broken into three parts:    

1.      Invest in the Building Blocks of American Innovation.

2.      Promote Competitive Markets that Spur Productive Entrepreneurship.

3.      Catalyze Breakthroughs for National Priorities.

In the final section the President outlines eight “Grand Challenges” of the 21st Century.

The challenges are great.  I have a personal interest in the success of the first challenge to battle cancer and also like the idea of solar cells as cheap as paint or the “highly accurate and real-time translation between the major languages of the world” (can you say Babel fish).  Yet, as I read the Strategy for American Innovation I was struck with what missing from the strategy, NASA.  Other government agencies including the National Institute of Health, Department of Energy, and DARPA are mentioned but NASA is not found anywhere in the strategy.  Now I’m not going to try to comment on why NASA is not in the strategy but instead would like to propose an additional “Grand Challenge” that is worthy of American innovation and NASA expertise.


“Ensuring the sustainability of Life on Earth and in Space.”    For me these two are closely linked and can enable tremendous American innovation for the “benefit of all humanity.”  First of all space offers us a unique view of the Earth and allows us to understand how we are impacting the Earth’s environment.  The unique perspective from space has been focused on understanding but maybe part of ensuring sustainability of life on Earth should consider how we might help the Earth’s ecosystem from space.  I know this will sound farfetched but to help stretch your imagination, what if we used the vantage point of space to control the weather (hey, they did it in Back to the Future  J).  What if we could direct rain to drought stricken areas of the world or focus showers during the yearly fires that threaten the California coast?  Or as a friend shared recently, what if we could use position in space to decrease the eye of a hurricane?  We still have much to learn about the Earth from space, but maybe it is time to move from learning to proactive measures that are only possible from Space.


Secondly much is being written about the depletion of resources on the Earth, including fresh water and energy.  This same challenge is found in ensuring sustainability of life in Space.  There is no water authority in space where the astronauts can tap into for their “tang” (ok, bad pun).  Plus there is not a power grid that they plug into for their electricity.  In space we have to tap into the renewable energy from the sun and recycle the water in the International Space Station.  A grand challenge on the sustainability of life as it relates to renewable resources (beyond cheap solar cells) will have far reaching impacts to sustained human presence in space and benefit nations across the world.  For an interesting discussion on this grand challenge on the Earth side of the equation, I would recommend Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded”.  


Finally sustainability of life on Earth and Space requires advances in the delivery of medicine to remote locations.  In space there is not an emergency room or a 24 hour clinic that you can drive to on the weekend (I don’t know about your family but it seems that when our kids were young, they would always get sick on the weekends when the doctor’s office was closed).  We need to be able to ensure access to medical treatment as we get further and further away from the Earth.  While back on Earth there are millions who need access to medical treatment since to them the nearest hospital may seem to them like it is in Low Earth Orbit. 


Anyone up for a new “Grand Challenge”?


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office


Creating the Future: One Giant Leap at a time

Last month the Advanced Planning Office pulled together a team to look at possible vision statements for the agency. I know a rather tall order, but it is always great to see the energy and creativity found within our JSC when it is unleashed. You can browse some of the ideas at the Open NASA post, NASA Vision and Mission. I know it isn’t really a vision statement, but the one phrase that has stuck with me is “Creating the Future: One Giant Leap at a time.” I really like the way it sums up the spirit of NASA and honors our past at the same time.

And the more that reflected on that phrase, the more I was struck by the recent events that demonstrated NASA’s role in taking these giant leaps. The most recent is LaserMotive LLC winning $900,000 in NASA’s 2009 Power Beaming Challenge. This one prize captures the imaginations of two communities and could seed a giant leap in either solar power beaming or a space elevator. LaserMotive won the prize by using a laser to power its robotic climber up a 900 meter cable that was suspended from a helicopter at Edwards Air Force Base in Mojave, California. The climber reached the top in just over 4 minutes, for an average speed of 3.7 meters per second and later repeated the feat at of 3.9 meters per second. Then on October 30th, Masten Space Systems won the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge. What is great about this joint prize between NASA and the X PRIZE Foundation is the community it is creating. I love the quote from Masten Space System’s CEO, David Masten, “To come from not flying at all last year to qualifying for level one AND level two of the LLC this year shows how far our technology has progressed.” Mark another one in the win column for NASA’s ability to spur on Commercial Space.

Yet, what more can we do to take a giant leap forward. Could we partner with Japan on their plans to construct a solar power station in space and use it to beam energy down to Earth using lasers? Or do we build a space only cruiser? What would a space cruiser look like if it never needed to fight the gravity to get off the Earth or a planetary destination? Or is it too farfetched to create a prize for a non-rocket vehicle for access to LEO? While Commercial Space companies are investing in low cost access to Low Earth Orbit using rocket’s should NASA partner up to create a prize that will look at the physics for the next LEAP forward in access to space?

OK, I have to say it… I’ll even settle for a WARP drive X Prize.

So what prize would you create to make the next LEAP forward?

Sharing the Vision,
Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office

Challenge Everything

There is an interesting experiment happening at the Johnson Space Center.  The basic question being addressed by this experiment is “what would happen if we could tap into the expertise of the 15,000 employees at JSC to solve any one of the difficult challenges that we are wrestling with?”   Actually the experiment is also tapping the expertise at the other NASA Centers.  The idea was a brainchild of the JSC Vision 2028 team and the Center Director’s, Inclusion and Innovation council engagement teams.  Called Project Blue Moon, it is a six month pilot to create an open collaboration environment across the NASA Community.

I know been there, done that.  I know the outside has been making use of open collaboration environments for years.  Yes I know all about open source and the strides it made in operating systems development.  And yes, open collaboration is normally wide open and engages expertise outside of a company.  Yet given all of that the interesting part of the experiment is the focus on the potentially untapped talent within OUR OWN community.  The potential to find a solution in the most unlikely of places within NASA or tapping into the limitless passion of our community to contribute to the NASA mission.  Two stories come to mind when I think of the possibilities of this experiment.  The first is the legendary tale of the janitor at KSC who was asked what was he doing and his response was “I am helping to put a man on the moon.”  He was passionate about what he was doing and understood the linkage between what he was doing and the mission of the agency.  But what if he had other expertise?  What if he loved to tinker on his time off and was given the opportunity to play around with one of the challenges of that time?  Imagine if his passion could be directed to leverage some of his hidden talents and experiences?  The second story was one that was shared with me about a couple of guys that wanted to take pictures of space. They solved their challenge with the most unlikely set of equipment.  What is great is that I would never have thought of their solution.  They came at the problem from a completely different angle.


As with any organization we are great at tapping into our “community of practice.”  We know the experts and we are able to obtain innovative solutions from these experts.  The JSC experiment though challenges everyone to also look for creative solutions outside of your discipline.  Maybe there are outstanding ideas that are only apparent from another discipline across the center or across the Agency.  Maybe there is a robotic solution from JPL that would support a problem that we are grappling with in human exploration.  Our community is filled with individuals who have moved from their original area of expertise and yet they would welcome the opportunity to offer up ideas for challenges in their old disciplines.  We have employees that have hobbies, workshops at home and interests that keep them abreast of the latest innovations that are not being taped.  The Blue Moon project is trying to tap into this wealth of ideas.


The flip side of the Blue Moon challenge is to get people to offer up solutions.  Our community is not shy and will voice their ideas in the areas that they are currently responsible for.  Yet it is human nature not to offer up ideas in what may be seen as outside of your expertise.   What if I’m wrong?  What if I offer up a “stupid” idea?  This experiment is trying to create an environment where there are not any stupid ideas.  We are challenging anyone with any ideas for a solution to post their concepts. 


So are you up for the challenge in your own organization?


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office