Innovation The NASA Way
by Rod Pyle 2014
This book is not about innovation - it is about solving engineering problems encountered while achieving pre-established goals. The solutions presented here are clever, NASA has some talented and creative thinkers. But innovation is more durable than that - after innovation, we are moving in a different and unpredictable direction.
These are some great stories - none more inspiring than the development of the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, which is probably the most stunning re-thinking of how to do a space system that NASA has ever done - a true innovation. The MSL mission was the most ambitious use of computer-aided mission design ever attempted - most of the subsystems were never completely tested as physical hardware until they flew, but all of the systems were extensively tested as physics models on JPL's computers. Experiments did not test hardware, they validated computer models. And that will change how we do space.
The book does not talk about NASA's biggest MSL-related innovation; an outstanding public outreach program, with interviews and videos and professional live coverage of the landing. If JPL treats this as a mere starting point, and devotes a large portion of future space mission budget to explaining (in detail) what they do and what they find to the public (US and internationally), they will expand their "customer base" beyond a few thousand space professionals to all seven billion of us, with some of those billions hanging on every detail, every day. This will create support for new missions, and the new engineers and space scientists that will design them. JPL is a half-hour round trip from Warner Brothers Studios - when the traffic between the two sites requires extra freeway lanes between, and 20% of the world's theater screens are showing NASA-derived content, public outreach might begin to approach an appropriate level.
The book does not dwell on NASA's second most important innovation - the lunar orbit rendezvous used by Apollo, replacing the direct-to-moon-and-return mission envisioned by von Braun and all the science fiction authors of the past. We had failures (Apollo 1, Apollo 13, and budget) in the way to the six successful landings. A direct mission would have involved much more hardware, and much larger hardware - more opportunities to fail, more opportunities to exceed budget. Without lunar orbit rendezvous (with important engineering contributions by Buzz Aldrin) we probably would never have reached the moon.
The book has many interesting stories about intrepid engineering derring-do; the fast-track engineering creativity that saved Skylab, and the improvization by Pete Conrad that made it work, for example. The clever re-engineering of the Lunar Module by Grumman to reduce weight, which resulted in Neil Armstrong having enough fuel to land Eagle during Apollo 11, and enough weight allowance to carry the rover later on.
NASA is doing some true engineering now - they are learning to do tele-operation with long time delays, which will hopefully lead to a robotic return to the moon and a permanent operational presence there. We do not have to travel in space in big tin cans as fragile radiation-baked meat. When working on the moon means driving to the office and donning a haptic VR suit to drive a lunar robot - from anywhere on earth - space will become ordinary enough to become truly extraordinary, and the innovative potential of seven billion curious humans will finally be unleashed.