Encouraging Innovation at NASA

I have another video for you to watch, but before you do let me give you a little context.

On this date, March 16, 1926, Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard, professor of Physics at Worchester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts tried out his newest invention in his Aunt Effie’s cabbage patch near Auburn, Massachusetts.  Pretty old cabbages in that garden in March in Massachusetts.  Dr. Goddard’s invention?  The world’s very first liquid fueled rocket.  It flew; not very high nor very far, but it flew.  And attracted the attention of the town’s volunteer fire department – they asked Dr. Goddard not to do any more experiments there.

Dr. Goddard had carried on his work despite the fact that a few years earlier he was humiliated in a very public forum.  After he had delivered a paper entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes”, the New York Times devoted several column inches in its editorial page to denigrate his thoughts.  Most quotable from the NY Times editorial was this comment about Dr. Goddard’s grasp of physics:  “”does not know of the relation of action to reaction, and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react”.  A classic line if there ever was one.  I should note that in July 1969 (almost a half century later and well after Dr. Goddard’s death) the NY Times posted a correction with the words “The Times regrets its error.”  Indeed. 

The public criticism confirmed Dr. Goddard’s introverted nature and he continued his work, mostly in secret and mostly in isolation for another quarter century.  Other, more knowledgeable folks, read his work and were enlightened by it.  In 1945, German engineers from Peenemunde, where rocketry had made huge – regrettable at the time – advances, when interrogated by their American captors about rockets, replied “Why don’t you ask your own Dr. Goddard?”  They paid attention.  We did not.

We cannot afford to let good ideas slip from our grasp.  Innovation and creativity are the foundation on which our economy is really founded. 

So a few weeks ago, a team of folks at Johnson Space Center made a video report on what are some of the barriers to innovation at NASA.  A lot of you watched that video and many of the comments reported that these barriers exist in a wide spectrum of private and public organizations.  That video was an amalgam of the most egregious examples of poor communication and bad management that unfortunately still occurs from time to time in supposedly “creative” organizations.

Now the team has taken their list of proposed ways to overcome these barriers and turned them into another video.  This video is to produce discussion and thought.  Some of these ideas are better than others.  A couple of the proposals are being implemented at JSC at this time. 

So watch, and consider.  And ask this question — how are you helping to encourage creativity and innovation in your organization? 



9 thoughts on “Encouraging Innovation at NASA”

  1. Wow, getting the public involved? (See your new video, last suggestion by the inventor to the Google Guy) Not sure how this fits in with your blog about “Just put chicken wire in it!” and whether it changes your view that only the rocket scientists are apt to have a good idea about their field. If I’ve got your viewpoint wrong I will humbly stand corrected.

    BTW, the spelling of Worcester as Worchester is an easy mistake to make. According to the Worcester County pronunciation guide, it appears that is the way people down south of the Mason-Dixon line pronounce it. http://www.worcestermass.com/pronounce/worcestercounty.shtml#worcester

    Just pulling your leg nicely, I hope it isn’t an impediment to your innovation and invention at this wonderful blog. (Comment written from Massachusetts about 48 miles southeast of Worcester.)

  2. #1….Rule to live by…NEVER, and I mean NEVER listen to the NY Times

    #2….How about we quit making videos and go design better ways to do things. Trying (aka testing) on a small scale is not a bad thing…failing on a full-scale is unacceptable.

    Shorter story (from some one who does test for a living). First, new ideas are good but not all new ideas are going to be good. Common sense, cost vs. performance (e.g. what is gained), and more importantly RISK is what makes “new toys”.

  3. great video, thanks for sharing these. I know some at JSC don’t seem to buy into all this inclusion/Gen Y/innovation stuff, but I applaud you for sharing it and the team for making the video. Do we actually have an innovation center at JSC or an innovation charge code?

  4. The video talked a lot about servant leadership, and it said that servant leadership takes training. That’s only partially correct.

    We need to hire leaders and managers who have a heart to serve their people and their organizations. Most of the problems noted in the first video came from managers who were more interested in protecting their own careers than they were about putting out a quality product. That behavior comes from an attitude of the heart. No amount of training is going to override that. Instead of relying on training to eliminate the problem, the agency needs to focus on hiring people for leadership positions whose hearts are in the right place from the beginning.

  5. I see now that a movement is afoot to name the new space toilet after Stephen Colbert. Who says innovation and creativity are dead in NASA or that NASA people are just a bunch of dull, dry engineers?

  6. One of those times NASA TV was running old films on a weekend, I saw a rather touching one about Goddard. I don’t remember much about it, but maybe it was a ceremony naming the Goddard NASA center? Anyway, as I remember it, his widow was present to accept an award on Goddard’s behalf, and I’m pretty sure the word “vindication” was used at least once.

    (I’ve read that there’s a Goddard museum in Roswell, where he had to relocate when the fire department kicked him out of wherever he’d been testing before. Seems like a more worthwhile destination than what you usually hear about Roswell for…)

  7. I’m having trouble understanding just what is meant by innovation and creativity in the current NASA. In its day, the old NACA was the source of innovation in the aeronautics business. The 6-series laminar-flow airfoils and the area rule were major advances invented by NACA people. The ideas were published because people in the NACA hierarchy understood the underlying concepts and allowed the work to go forward. Suppose some kid comes up with an idea for a warp drive. Would he (or she) get a fair hearing or would he just run up against a bunch of clueless bean counters? How would you know creativity if you saw it?

Comments are closed.