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The innovation lesson that NASA learned from losing $120 million

Posted in the following categories: Creativity, Problem Solving

Mars is a master of deception.

With its red hue, the planet might appear warm, cozy, and welcoming to the unsuspecting observer. But it’s not. Mars is a hostile place–not just because the average temperature is -60 degrees celsius, not just because it’s dry, and not just because it’s home to the type of intense dust storms that left Matt Damon stranded on its surface.

Mars is hostile to us because it hosts the biggest graveyard of human spacecraft.

When I started working on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers mission, two out of every three Mars missions had failed. That’s right: two out of three. I learned quickly that the red planet wouldn’t be rolling out any red carpets for us. Upon entry into the martian atmosphere, we’d be greeted by what the journalist Donald Neff described as the “galactic ghoul,” a fictitious martian monster that feeds on human spacecraft.

One obvious solution to escape the galactic ghoul is to innovate, to do things differently than they had been done before. If spacecraft keep plunging to their deaths on the martian surface, let’s ask rocket scientists to come up with some sexy, sleek, state-of-the art technology to ensure a smooth, steady landing.

Here’s the problem: When we instinctively search for the shiny new innovation, when we attempt to find “the next best thing,” and when we try to force-fit sexy 21st century solutions into 14th century problems, we can miss the simple, old, boring solution hiding in plain sight.

Legend has it that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that would work in zero gravity. The Russians used a pencil. This story is a myth, but the moral holds: “Everything should be made as simple as possible,” as Albert Einstein put it, “but not simpler.”

The same idea is captured in various different problem-solving principles, the most prominent of which is Occam’s razor: The simplest solution to a problem is often the correct one. Simple is sophisticated. Simple has fewer points of failure. Complicated things break more easily.

Ignoring this principle cost taxpayers $120 million and NASA its hard-earned reputation.

To land on Mars is to execute a perfect cosmic choreography. As NASA engineer Tom Rivellini put it, “If any one thing doesn’t work just right, it’s game over.”

Given the alignment of the planets in 2003, it would take us roughly six months to get to Mars. But the most dangerous part of that interplanetary journey is the six minutes that comes at the very end when the spacecraft enters, descends, and lands on the martian surface.

When the spacecraft touches the martian atmosphere, it’s barrelling through space at twenty-five times the speed of sound. It must slow down to casual driving speeds, but there are no breaks. You need something more to slow down the spacecraft and guide it safely onto the surface (which is covered with rocks and other hazards that can destroy a delicate robot).

To make matters worse, the spacecraft has to execute this entire choreography by itself, without a real-time human conductor. Why? It takes roughly 14 minutes for a signal from Mars to reach Earth, but it takes only half that time for the spacecraft to descend to the Martian surface. All we can do is to load up the software to the spacecraft ahead of time, give it the proper instructions, and put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.

In 1999, when I started working on the operations team for a planned 2003 mission to Mars, three-legged landers were all the rage. These landers would use rocket motors to slow things down, deploy their three legs that had been tightly stowed away during the journey, and, using a radar system, navigate down to the surface for a soft, steady landing.

That was the theory. But there was a slight practical problem. A spacecraft called the 1999 Mars Polar Lander, which used this landing system, died a swift death. Although it’s impossible to know for sure what happened, a NASA review board concluded that the Lander had plummeted to the surface at highways speeds most likely after a premature shut down of its rocket motors.

From our perspective, this presented a significant problem. We were planning to use the same landing mechanism as the Mars Polar Lander, and that mechanism had just failed spectacularly. Our mission was cancelled.

We began brainstorming ways to salvage our mission. The initial instinct was to ask the obvious questions: How can we innovate on the flawed design of the Mars Polar Lander? How do we design a better three-legged lander?

But these were the wrong questions to ask. In focusing on innovation, we initially neglected a simpler solution right before our eyes.

The problem with landing a delicate spacecraft on Mars is gravity. The same force that caused Newton’s apple to fall from a tree also causes unhappy meetings between spacecraft and martian surface–unless you do something to cushion the fall.

To provide the necessary cushion, we abandoned our fancy three-legged lander designs. Instead, we built giant inflatable balloons with our half-ton robot cocooned inside. Cushioned by these big white grapes, our robot geologist would strike the Martian surface and bounce roughly 30 times before coming to a rest.

I know what you’re thinking: Really? You put all those lab-coated brainiacs at NASA together and you came up with bouncing balloons? I want my taxpayer money back.

Yes, these balloons were crude. Yes, they were ugly as hell. But they had the benefit of actually working. NASA had previously used airbags to land safely on the Martian surface in 1997 with the Pathfinder mission. They were a known quantity.

The same mechanism that cushions your collision with your steering wheel in a car accident also safely landed our two rovers–Spirit and Opportunity–on Mars.

Often, change doesn’t happen when it should. We’re too wrapped up in the comfort of the status quo and don’t bother to innovate even where its benefits would exceed the costs.

But sometimes the opposite is true. We pursue innovation for the sake of innovation. We develop an app because our competitors are doing it. We chase the latest fad because it’s “high tech.”

Every brilliant new idea has the potential to generate a dozen unintended, and often disastrous, consequences. When you change, you often introduce new variables, and therefore complexity and uncertainty, into the mix. That new technology that swallows up millions in funding can fail spectacularly.

Before we innovate, we must ask: What benefit do we hope to get from change? Does that benefit exceed the potential uncertainty, complexity, and expense that will result? If the innovation fails, will it compromise the fundamentals and produce catastrophic consequences for what we’re trying to achieve (e.g., the landing system on a spacecraft)?

To land on Mars is to execute a perfect cosmic choreography. But perfection doesn’t require a groundbreaking innovation. Sometimes, perfect takes the unlikely shape of big, ugly white balloons lurking in plain sight.

You just have to keep your eyes open to see them.

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