Slide 1 of 22
NASA's Top Innovations
Rod Pyle is a space author and documentary producer. He led leadership training at NASA's Johnson Space Center for its top executives and has written extensively about space exploration and organizational principles. Pyle's latest book is "Innovation the NASA Way: Harnessing the Power of Your Organization for Breakthrough Success" (McGraw-Hill, 2014). He contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
NASA has been synonymous with innovation since the agency’s founding in 1958. Program after program has demonstrated this, but perhaps no period was as fiercely inventive as the space race years, from 1961 to 1972. As the seventies progressed, already diminishing budgets took a toll, and the layoffs that began both within NASA and at the aerospace contractors in the late 1960s accelerated. The agency's budget declined from a high point of almost 5 percent of the national budget in 1966 to roughly 1 percent during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, to the current 0.5 percent — the lowest percentage ever. [How Innovation Will Get U.S. to Mars 2020 (Op-Ed)]
Nonetheless, NASA has continued to lead the way among national space agencies and space exploration with a continuous stream of new and innovative programs and technologies. While the space shuttle had an entirely different mandate than Apollo — i.e. to make access to space (theoretically) cheaper and more efficient — the program was really about innovation being backed into ever-tighter budgets. ['Innovation the NASA Way' (US 2014): Book Excerpt]
The International Space Station has been a case of innovation within a global context, involving numerous primary and secondary partnerships with countries across the globe.
And then there is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), marching to a different beat, exploring robotically. Always at the narrow end of the funding pipeline, JPL has consistently exceed both the world's expectations and their own, with spectacular deep-space voyages of exploration that continue for decades after the conclusion of their primary missions.
Here then are ten of NASA's prime innovations, some of their "finest hours."
VoyagerSlide 2 of 22
Not content to merely explore Mars and Venus, in the 1960s, NASA hatched a scheme to explore most of the solar system. The major planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — were going into a rough, curving alignment in the 1970s, and NASA wanted to conduct a "Grand Tour" with twin spacecraft. The opportunity to do so would not repeat for about 180 years.
The plan was thwarted by budgetary concerns, but NASA persisted, and had the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) build two smaller and less ambitious spacecraft called Voyager. The robotic explorers were launched in 1977, racing past Jupiter and Saturn and completing their primary missions by 1980. With a clever twist in trajectory design and a lot of brainpower, JPL managed to divert Voyager 1 to investigate Saturn's largest moon, [ Titan , and then leave the solar system. Voyager 2 continued onward and visited Neptune and Uranus (and is still the only machine to have done so) before heading outward.
Both probes are still transmitting data almost 38 years later, thanks to innovative mechanical and electronic designs, a nuclear fuel source, and the first autonomous computers to fly into space. Voyager 1 officially left the solar system last year, headed for a rendezvous with another star in about 50,000 years.
NEXT: The Apollo MoonsuitSlide 3 of 22
The Apollo MoonsuitSlide 4 of 22
The Apollo Moonsuit
What good was flying to the moon if you couldn't walk on it? That was the conundrum facing NASA engineers in the early 1960s. They had designed space suits for the X-15 flights, Mercury and then Gemini, and each suit was a little bit better than its predecessors — but all were stiff, bulky and uncomfortable.
And perhaps worst of all, it was hard to actually do much of anything when the suits were pressurized — they were like wearing stiff, thick balloons. For the Apollo lunar missions NASA innovated quickly, building and testing a dozen designs before settling on the bulky-looking suit used for the Apollo 11 landing.
That spacesuit, designed specifically for working on the lunar surface, is more nimble than it appears. There are rotating joints on the gloves and other parts of the suit, the fingertips are made of rubber thin enough to "feel," and the shoulders were supported by a clever cable-and-pulley arrangement. And while nobody would call them "comfy," the astronauts were able to use them, protected from the killing temperatures and hard vacuum of the moon, for up to eight hours at a time.
NEXT: The Viking Mars LanderSlide 5 of 22
The Viking Mars LanderSlide 6 of 22
The Viking Mars Lander
In the late 1950s, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory dreamed up an ambitious mission to send twin robotic landers to Mars. Once there, the machines would conduct geological tests, weather and atmospheric sensing, and perhaps most ambitious of all, a search for life. At the time the mission was being designed, NASA had not even flown past Mars — the planet was merely a red smudge in large telescopes.
But within a decade, NASA engineers were exercising incredible innovation, and had miniaturized life-science labs that should have filled a classroom down to the size of a small washing machine. Two Viking spacecraft, each with an orbiting component as well as a lander, arrived at Mars in 1976.
The twin landers set down on opposite sides of the red planet, and both performed well beyond their primary missions of 90 days (the Viking 1 lander operated until 1982). While the search for microbial life was ambitious (many would say audacious), the results were puzzling and inconclusive.
But in 2008, NASA scientists reevaluated the experiments and ascertained that there may have been microbes, or at least organic substances, present in the Martian soil after all. A new Mars rover mission slated for 2020 may edge us closer to knowing, one way or the other.
NEXT: The F-1 Rocket EngineSlide 7 of 22
The F-1 Rocket EngineSlide 8 of 22