Technology Entertainment and Design (TED)


This week is the second TEDxNASA conference at the NASA/Langley Research Center (LaRC).  They have been leading the agency in creating these outstanding and innovative conferences to bring together various perspectives.  I would definitely encourage anyone that is familiar with TED events to take a look at the videos from last year’s TedxNASA Space to Create. You will definitely enjoy the talks.  Additionally on November 20th, NASA/LaRC and NASA/Johnson Space Center will be hosting events in support of TEDxYouthDay.  Held on Universal Children’s Day – “TEDx organizers across the globe will host events for (and by) young people. These events will vary widely in size, format and theme, but they will share a common vision: inspiring curiosity, igniting new ideas, empowering young leaders.”


So as I thought about bringing together the worlds of technology, entertainment and design I am reminded of an experiment that we are trying at JSC.  Two months ago we asked Pat Rawlings to help bring together the world of technology and entertainment in looking at a possible future for the Johnson Space Center.   He combined his insights on technology trends with a graphic novel format to describe what the future might look like at the 100th anniversary of the lunar landing. In his depiction of the future he introduces the Butterfly Effect Environmental Software (B.E.E.S) that used massive amounts of data to better predict the weather and other events.  If you are curious about what this might look like I would recommend that you look at the external posting of the JSC 2069 story.   


When I reflected on the TED activities, what struck me more than our story about the possibilities was the reality that was recently announced by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).  They introduced a new facility with a “state-of-the-art supercomputer to give NOAA a powerful new tool in climate and weather modeling”.  It is reminiscent of Jules Verne and submarines or da Vinci and airplanes.   When you combine technology and the arts (left and right sides of the brain) new realities are possible.  Of course the JSC 2069 story did not result in NOAA’s announcement, but like Jules Verne it opens up the possibilities for future applications of a nascent technology/capability. 


Therefore, I applaud the team at Langley for pushing to bring together the different world views from technology, entertainment and design.  I can’t wait to see the possibilities that will emerge from the discussions.


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office


Ambidextrous Organizations: The Power of AND

I was lucky enough this week to return to my old stomping grounds in Boston to take a class with an amazing collection of  CEO’s (Chief Executive Officer’s), Presidents, VP’s, COO’s (Chief Operating Officer’s) and others from 26 different nations.  The focus of the class was on Leading Change and Organizational Renewal and one of the most amazing aspects of the class was how the 91 participants from a wide spectrum of industries shared similar challenges.  Every industry was being faced with changes that were disrupting their organizations and they were looking for ways to better position their companies. 


OK, so what does this have to do with space?  Well, as I sat in the class I thought about the challenge ahead of us with the President’s direction.  He is asking NASA to focus more on pushing the envelope in technical innovations AND extend the International Space Station.  This may seem to be an easy task, but as I listened to my classmates and the professors it reinforced my belief that it is actually a very difficult path to navigate.  The reason is that the culture that made an organization successful in one domain may prevent it from being successful in another domain.  Specifically for NASA the culture that ensures the safe return of our astronauts can hinder us from pushing the envelope and taking risks.  By necessity we have been a culture of “Failure is not an Option” but now we are being asked to pursue initiatives where “Failure is a REQUIREMENT.”  Can these two cultures coexist?  Can you have a strong risk adverse and equally strong risk seeking culture within an organization without one “assimilating” the other? 


The short answer is YES.  But it is a yes that takes a great deal of effort and the right leadership.  The model presented was one that has been used by many successful companies including IBM (a great read on what IBM did is “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance.”).  The general idea is that a company needs to maintain the systems, culture and organization that support its core business while also creating an organization, culture and systems that will allow it to pursue the new direction.  For JSC this would translate into an organization that ensures the safe operations of the International Space Station and a new organization and culture that will embrace the risks required to push the envelope of technology.  The trick is giving the new organization the time to incubate.  To allow it to grow up and establish a new way of doing business.  History has shown that many organizations have tried this and failed and that one of the keys to success is a strong leader that can provide the top cover.  A leader that won’t be over taken by the dominant culture in the company. 


So, I would like to continue exploring this idea of maintaining an ambidextrous organization.  How do you create a structure that maintains both a culture of risk taking without impacting the continued success of the current business?  Do you have a successful model that you would like to share?  Or do you have lessons learned where your company tried and failed to create a dual culture?  Or what attributes do you believe are required in the leader that has to create a new way of conducting business alongside a strong dominant culture?


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office


Out there. Thataway


Ok, my turn.  Everyone and their sister have given their spin on the new NASA budget and the views have covered the full spectrum of the death of Human Spaceflight to the birth of a new era and the rebirth of robotic exploration.   But before I weigh in on the discussion I first would like to take my hat off to all of my friends and colleagues that have given so much of their lives, energy and passion to support the congressional and presidential direction of the previous administration.  As a government agency we know that we are subject to the winds of change with each election but it does not stop us from committing our hearts and minds to fulfilling the visions and expectations of the American public and the officials that they place in office.  There is a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on regarding the Constellation program, but not enough is being said about the dedicated individuals that gave up time with family to help America retain its ability to reach to the stars.  Again, my hat goes off to them.


Now, back to the direction given by the President.  For me there are three main thrusts that I would like to offer my perspectives.  The first is the move to shift access to Low Earth Orbit to the commercial community.  Many are surprised by this move, but for me it was only a matter of time.  Back in 2008 I had shared how there was a growth in the commercial space community and we would eventually need to answer what affect this growth will have in our role in the Human Exploration of Space.  As I shared in It’s Getting Crowded out there, we would have to make a choice whether to compete in this era of growing capability or lead the way beyond earth’s orbit.  Well, the decision has been made for NASA and now we have to make it work.  It is akin to the explorers that would burn the ships in order to keep them from turning back.  NASA is being pushed to the stars and out of the access to space business.  That being said, NASA has a responsibility to work with the commercial community to share their 40 years of Human Spaceflight experience and expertise.  It is incumbent upon us to help them to learn from our successes and mistakes in the hope that they will not repeat the lessons we learned.  How this is to be done is yet to be defined but I for one am looking forward to the release of the strategy of how we make this transition. 


Secondly there is a return to “transformational technologies”.  I am amused by all of the eye rolling that is associated with that phrase.  Weren’t the technologies that enabled the Saturn V, transformational?  Weren’t the technologies that enabled the computers on the Lunar Lander transformational?  Isn’t the technology that allows us to look back to the birth of the universe transformational?  I think this agency has been and should always be about transformational technologies.  It has always been about pushing the envelope of what is possible or as some like to say “making science fiction a reality.”  Yes, I agree you cannot schedule when a miracle will occur.  We cannot say that “On July 29th, we will discover how to tap into the limitless supply of ‘zero point energy’ in the vacuum of space and it will enable us to power our voyage to Mars.”  No, but just because it can’t be scheduled doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard to discover the next leap in technology.  Let commercial space focus on technologies that we know and let NASA focus on technologies yet to be discovered.


Finally there is the anxiety related to a lack of destination.  The recurring sentiment is that we need a bold direction like, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Similarly the question is raised, “How can we focus on transformational technologies if we don’t know where we are going?”  Although valid perspectives I believe that NASA has an opportunity to rethink how it explores.  We always think of exploring as starting from the Earth’s surface.  It focuses on a certain set of solutions that require breaking the gravitational pull of the Earth.  But what if we started thinking of exploration starting from space?  What would be required to start our journey from space?  What vehicle would be required if it never encountered the Earth’s atmosphere?  What would you need to create a vehicle in space?  NASA has learned quite a bit from its 10 years of constructing the International Space Station.  How can we use this knowledge to create an interplanetary vehicle?  What would it take to fuel a new vehicle in space?  With a space port would you have to limit your destinations?


Yes a destination would be nice, but I kind of like the perspective from Kirk in the first Star Trek movie when asked where they should go, “Out there, Thataway.”  NASA shouldn’t think point to point but create the ability for us to go “out there.”


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office

Made in NASA?


Last weekend my family and I ran in the Houston ½ Marathon and 5k.  It was a perfect weekend for a great race and Houston has a great Expo where you can find a bunch of neat gadgets.  My daughter, who loves jewelry of any kind, was fascinated by this one booth that was selling a bracelet that was suppose to help increase your balance, strength and agility.  I was for the most part ignoring the sales pitch until they said that the secret to their bracelet was the holographic technology developed by NASA and my daughter shot me a questioning, but knowing glance, “Really?”  Then she saw the look in my eyes that told her, “Of course not.”  But it got me thinking about how much is associated with NASA and how much is not known about the true technology that comes from NASA.


We are lucky enough to have within our Advanced Planning Office the responsibility for transferring technology from the Johnson Space Center to the external community.  So I get to see examples of the real technology that benefits the public as a direct result from our efforts to explore space.  Oh, and for the record Tang, Velcro and Teflon did not come from NASA. Each year NASA’s Innovative Partnership program publishes the Spinoff magazine which captures those innovations that have found their way into the public domain.  One of my favorites is the Shuttle Fuel Pump Technology that Helps Children’s Hearts.  “Not much larger than a penlight battery, the pump is the result of two decades of NASA collaboration with famed heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey.”  I for one would rather be associated with technology that is saving children than Velcro.


Of course being a strategist I am looking forward to the future innovations that result from NASA reaching beyond Low Earth Orbit.  Also the medical advances that will come from the International Space Station like the new methods for delivering medicine to cancer cells.  Or personally, to help with my commute to work, I’m looking forward to the Jetson’s flying car.


So take a look at the history of NASA’s spinoff’s and let me know which is your favorite or let me know what spinoff you would like to see in the future.


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office