Ask the Expert: How to Make NASA Cool (Again)
By Nicholas Skytland, MBA ’10
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
When I was growing up, asking a classroom full of kids that question almost always included the answer, “I want to be an astronaut!” Space was cool. Space was something new, innovative and entrepreneurial. Inspiration was clearly NASA’s main value proposition.
Compare that with today.
What inspires tomorrow’s explorers, engineers and business leaders? From my personal experience, it has less and less to do with NASA, and more and more to do with other, well let’s just say “cooler” things.
Tomorrow’s leaders want to work for the “cool” company. They want to work for the next Google. The one that is open to new ideas. And so I wonder, how do we make NASA cool again? How do we use our space program as a catalyst to pass along that innovative, entrepreneurial, American spirit that got us to the moon in less than 10 years and launched a generation of innovators? Or better yet, how do we communicate all the cool things NASA is actually doing? Because, whether you know it or not, NASA does some amazing things!
I think it’s simple. Let them participate.
Think about it. Isn’t going to space so much cooler when you actually get to go? Isn’t that lunar rover so much better when you actually get to build it and then drive it? Isn’t that classroom outreach visit by the astronaut so much more relevant when they answer your question and then ask you one?
People want to be personally engaged. People want to see how they fit into the big picture. People, of all ages, want to be inspired. So that’s our challenge. We call it “participatory exploration” – creating a government agency that engages the American public in its mission and inspires the next generation of explorers, no matter what they want to be when they grow up.
How do people participate in what you do?
If you are in an organization with a great product that is having a tough time convincing your customers of your value proposition, you are not alone. I challenge you to think about how you can create a platform for participation in your organization. Don’t settle for mediocrity just by exposing people to or educating them about your product, collaborate with them to make it better.
If you want to attract the best and the brightest, open up your doors to new ideas and use participatory initiatives to attract the best and brightest earlier by allowing them to participate in your company.
At NASA, we know that business models are not eternal and we’re challenging the way we’ve always done things by working to make participatory exploration a core part of our business model. Whether NASA is designing the next exploration missions, using social networks to allow students to interact directly with astronauts living in space or creating a cutting edge Cloud Computing Platform to give the public unprecedented access to scientific data, NASA is engaging the American public in its mission.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of the successful initiatives that are leading the way at NASA:
- NASA’s highly successful Centennial Challenges prize program has engaged inventors from around the country to successfully build prototypes of technology and innovation for use in space.
- We’re using social engagement tools to collect hundreds of ideas for improving the agency’s openness and transparency, more suggestions than any other government agency.
- Through a new policy initiative, NASA is working to make open source software development more collaborative for the benefit of the agency and the public. NASA has created “Nebula,” the U.S. government’s only cloud computing platform, which offers an easier way for NASA scientists and researchers to share large, complex data sets with external partners and the public.
- NASA is giving the public live access to its missions through NASA TV and its many social media sites.
- NASA’s education outreach program includes initiatives where students have opportunities to control space instruments remotely.
- NASA is establishing a new Participatory Exploration Office, which will be charged with infusing more public participation into NASA’s mission in order to directly engage citizens in exploration.
Skytland is a project manager in the life sciences area at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.