NASA's Top 5 Innovations Countdown - BusinessBlog : McGraw-Hill
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NASA’s Top 5 Innovations Countdown

Guest post by Rod Pyle, author of Innovation the NASA Way: Harnessing the Power of Your Organization for Breakthrough Success.

For over half a century, NASA has delivered a continuous stream of innovative accomplishments that have inspired the world. Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the space shuttle pioneering reusable space planes, Mars rovers exploring the red planet–the list goes on. Of all of these accomplishments, what are the top 5 that stand out?



How do you fly to the moon with 1960’s technology? Just aim and fire the rockets? Nope. You need a sophisticated navigation computer, and in 1963, when NASA got serious about going to the moon, such devices filled entire rooms. But the agency was undaunted, and forged a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Instrumentation Laboratory to design the Apollo Guidance Computer. The result was the first integrated-circuit digital flight computer ever made. The Apollo astronauts used the computers to fly from the Earth to the Moon and back nine times, with six successful landings. The computer could navigate from the Earth to the moon, from lunar orbit to the surface, then back to lunar rendezvous and a return to Earth… all on 2k of RAM and 36k of programming running at one MHz. It was far less intelligent than a modern washing machine, but so very much more capable, and was the underpinning of today’s compact digital computers.


“Touchdown- we’re safe on Mars!” When flight director Al Chen spoke those five words, a decade-long saga ended with the successful landing of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity. The $2.5 billion program was the most ambitious yet, with exponentially more instrumentation and capability than all that had gone before. But all this techno-wonder came at a price- the complex rover weighed a ton and was the size of a Mini Cooper. Landing it safely was a huge challenge. The methods used in previous missions would not be sufficient for this heavy machine. So the engineers hit upon a new, wacky, crazy idea- slow the craft almost to a hover using parachutes and rockets, then lower the rover using nylon ropes. They called it “sky crane,” and the design raised eyebrows–and bloodpressures– upon first glance. “We first had to pass the laugh test…” recalls Chief Engineer Robert Manning of JPL. But on August 5, 2012, the only people laughing were the overjoyed engineers, controllers and scientists in JPL’s mission control–Curiosity had made it to Mars, and their adventure was just beginning.


Lighter, lighter, lighter. That was the mantra of the Grumman Corporation as they struggled to make NASA’s Apollo Lunar Module flight worthy. Long a maker of tough fighter aircraft, the company was now tasked with building a small number of true spaceships–machines meant to fly only in space. No streamlining, no aerodynamics. The engineers struggled to transform the concept into metal. The final result was a vast departure from early designs: they had stripped out most of the windows, the seats, even the side panels of the lower stage; everything not absolutely essential to landing on the moon was gone. But the machine was still too heavy to fly, so Grumman took to extreme and groundbreaking methods– even chemically etching tiny machined parts until they were barely strong enough to work– in the battle to trim grams. In the end, ten Lunar Modules flew (including the Apollo 13 LM, which saved the crew when their oxygen tank exploded), and every last one of them did their job to perfection.


The International Space Station is the largest and most expensive machine to ever leave Earth– and represents the most complex, successful and, at times, strained international collaboration ever undertaken. The final construction combines designs originally intended to fly in separate national space programs–including the United States, Russia, Japan and Europe. The ISS is larger than a football field, and expensive, at $150 billion . It is also the longest continually occupied structure in space, with crews serving in rotation for nearly fourteen years. As the station ages, new and inventive solutions are needed to fix ailing parts (such as the recent repair of a faulty air conditioning unit). But the ISS has proven to be robust, and is scheduled to remain in orbit until at least 2024.


Standing at number one on the list is the mighty Saturn V moon rocket. The three-stage monster was the size of a WWII destroyer and even more massive at well over 6,000,000 pounds. The rocket’s first stage utilized five F-1 rocket engines producing a combined total of 7.5 million pounds of thrust or 160 million horsepower. Had the rocket failed on the launch pad, it would have had the explosive force of a small atom bomb. It was a highly evolved version of smaller rockets that had flown before, with its roots in Wernher von Braun’s V2 rockets that pummeled London and Antwerp in WWII. The unknowns that faced its creators were immense, and the required innovations in science and technology were titanic. When President Kennedy announced his intention to land Americans on the moon by the end of the decade in 1961, stunned top NASA brass admitted that they ‘did not even know what they did not know.’ Nonetheless, in just eight years, a Saturn V rocket launched the Apollo 11 spacecraft toward a July 20, 1969 landing on the moon. All the crewed Saturn V’s delivered their precious cargo safely, and none failed in flight.

Rod Pyle led leadership training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for C-Suite executives. he has written extensively on space exploration and the inner workings of NASA and similar institutions. His documentaries on NASA have appeared on the History Channel and other major television outlets. Pyle is a popular speaker whose radio interviews are heard worldwide.


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