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Want Gov Innovation? Lift Off with NASA


If you want to know about major innovation in the public sector then look to NASA. The space agency is a crown jewel of government innovation and a global role model for groundbreaking scientific research and discovery.

NASA serves as a reminder to America of what’s possible when Uncle Sam harnesses his full potential, as evidenced by the space agency’s rich history of landmark achievements. NASA has not only proven instrumental in boldly going “where no man has gone before” but also in applying innovative solutions to practical problems in order to help all Americans.

When it comes to ROI, NASA provides an overwhelming return on investments. NASA’s amazing discoveries in space also provide significant tangible benefits for Americans back home, which should not be overlooked.

Q&A with NASA Deputy Chief Technologist

With this context in mind, I recently had a chance to pose a few questions to NASA’s Jim Adams, Deputy Chief Technologist. Below is a sampling of what he had to say:

1) Why is innovation an integral part of NASA’s mission?

“At NASA we push the boundaries of science, technological and human performance every day. Finding ways to maintain a permanent human presence in space on the International Space Station (ISS), or to understand what’s happening to our climate, or assuring a safe landing on Mars, it all requires innovation and invention.

Bringing new solutions to accomplish the hard things is what NASA is all about; it’s one of the things about us that inspire people to try hard things for themselves. In the process the innovations and inventions become available to the American people to use in new and unique — and often non-space — applications. NASA and our accomplishments fuel the spirit of innovation across our country.”

2) Are current innovation-based initiatives yielding practical scientific results for average Americans?

“Much of what NASA does yields practical scientific results. For example, when you fly, NASA is with you. We work with the aviation industry to make flying safer and more efficient. Our Earth Science missions – from the earth observing satellites to the ground or flight-based missions – gather and make available data on rainfall, hurricanes, ground water, and natural disasters, among other things.

This data can be used for practical applications such as monitoring climate patterns, farming, disaster response and wildfires, for example. And we’re always looking for new innovative ways to use the data we collect.

And NASA is fostering a new American industry through our commercial cargo and crew initiatives. Our industry partners are launching cargo from American soil, and will soon launch crew as well. But our partners will do more than just NASA work – these entrepreneurs are building a whole sector of our economy based on opening up space to the public.”

3) How would extra funding for NASA benefit not only government, but the private sector per innovative results?

“Every dollar the government invests in NASA fuels the U.S. economy. We don’t spend money in space, we spend it here on Earth. Our investments in space and aeronautics return dividends in non-space related industry many times over, including through Spinoffs and Technology Transfer.”

4) What major innovations is NASA working toward in the near future?

“We are using our full spectrum of activities to meet the President’s challenge of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s (video); continue investing in cutting edge scientific discovery and technological development; and ensure that NASA is a catalyst for the growth of a vibrant American commercial space industry.

We’re looking for all asteroids that might threaten human populations and how to respond to that threat. The Asteroid Grand Challenge announced by the White House last June is really a global effort led by NASA, in which we are interweaving citizen scientists and the public with traditional scientists and astronomers.

Our culture of innovation helps to amplify the impact of these investments, allowing us to find new ways of doing business and bringing in new viewpoints and ideas.”

My Take

In its heyday, the U.S. space program was the envy of the world and put the former Soviet Union to shame. However, it’s unwise to rely on Russia to hitch a ride to the ISS because of the dissolution of our own space shuttle program.

And while some private sector companies are moving closer to commercializing space travel, it’s NASA that ultimately has the most expertise, experience and resources to make historic scientific discoveries.

Therefore, it’s unfortunate that NASA has arguably been underfunded due to the ongoing climate of budget austerity in Washington. This is nonsensical because if any federal agency deserves a major budget increase based on ROI then it is most certainly NASA. Moreover, one can’t put a price on inspiring the nation.

Every Congress and every Presidential Administration – regardless of party – should sweep politics aside and allocate more funding for NASA to be the very best it can be, not just the best it can be with limited resources.

America and the world will be much better off for it.

DBG

*** All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector or private sector employer, organization or related entity.

David Grinberg is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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7 Comments

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Profile Photo Ramona Winkelbauer

It’s hard to argue with the solid common sense encapsulated in: “However, it’s unwise to rely on Russia to hitch a ride to the ISS because of the dissolution of our own space shuttle program” even *before* the Ukrainian flare-up.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Thanks for your kind words, Ramona. I appreciate your comment. Yes, the USA must be self-sufficient regarding space travel and galactic exploration. Gov shouldn’t have to depend on other nations or even the private sector when NASA can do it and better.

Profile Photo Dale M. Posthumus

I believe one of the great strengths of the NASA program has been the strong public-private partnership that has operated since NASA was founded and far before. In addition, as you have noted, strong US Govt support has been critical. I believe NASA deserves considerably more funding, but we must also ensure that the various space agencies (NASA, DoD, NOAA, related) are working well together, where appropriate.

I do not believe we should be totally self-sufficient for space activities (relative to other countries), but we should also have back-ups ready for when events in the world can impact our ability to continue space programs. As the commercial viability of a wide range of space programs grows, we must be prepared to shift those activities to the private sector. NASA has been contracting out to the private sector since the beginning. NASA should continue to do so, recognizing the value of innovation the private sector also brings to the table. This must not become an “us” (govt) vs. “them” (private industry), but an “us togther”, which has contributed significantly to NASA’s success.

Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

DALE: Thanks very much for taking the time to share your valuable feedback.

You raise several excellent points about the public-private sector partnership, as well as NASA interaction with other agency’s space-based programs. However, I still believe the public-private partnership balance need to weighed in favor of NASA.

Moreover, more funding would allow NASA to maximize its breakthrough scientific research and findings. One great example is the Kepler Telescope’s recent discovery of hundreds of new planets in our own galaxy which orbit stars similar to our own solar system. In fact, NASA has determined that some of these planets are similar to Earth and may harbor intelligent life. We need greater follow up on these amazing discoveries.

Also, just an FYI, that I also started a discussion regarding this post on LinkedIn, in the Amateur Astronomers group, which you may want to check out…

https://www.linkedin.com/groups?home=&gid=36435&trk=my_groups-tile-grp

https://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&discussionID=5884800927440859136&gid=36435&goback=%2Egmr_36435#commentID_null

Thanks again, Dale!