Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Innovation Trifecta

C. Engdahl
Product Marketing Manager

Space shuttle Discovery and its crew of seven safely touched down on runway 15 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 3:14 p.m. EDT this past Saturday (March 28, 2009). Discovery returned home after a 13-day mission to the International Space Station. The STS-119 mission, also known as International Space Station Assembly Flight 15A, was the 28th mission to the station. It had a primary objective to deliver the final set of solar array wings and truss element needed to complete the station’s electricity-generating system. In addition to three spacewalks to install these components, the crew also unfurled the arrays and performed other tasks.

I happened to be in Florida on Saturday for a little rest and relaxation with my family (rest and relaxation being a relative term of course with two school-aged kids and a toddler in tow). Because of overcast skies and the fact that the space shuttle performs a glide landing (no rocket thrust), I was unable to see the landing from my location only 30 miles or so to the south on Cocoa Beach. (Despite my intention to look to the sky, to be honest, I actually sort of lost track of the time as I kept an eye on my kids playing in the surf. I can’t say I even looked up at the prescribed time.)

Despite not actually seeing the shuttle landing on Saturday, my return to Florida this past week made me think of a few related things. Just being near the Kennedy Space Center reminded me of JFK’s iconic speech back in 1961 in which he said the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”. I wasn’t yet born when Kennedy made his pronouncement, but I’ve seen the speech (or snippets of it) many, many times. When it comes to some of the more innovative endeavors ever undertaken, it’s difficult for me to think that putting a person on the moon isn’t somewhere near the top of the list.

I know virtually nothing about the technical challenges or complexities associated with sending a person into space, let alone the difficulties of landing someone on the moon. For me though, what makes the moon landing so monumental is that it required the combination of three essential innovation elements – Strategy, Ideation, and Execution.

Kennedy of course provided the basic strategy and vision. I imagine there were also many players behind-the-scenes providing additional strategic direction. As for ideation, obviously scores of new ideas came to the forefront - new equipment, new food, new techniques, and new technical challenges to overcome. Virtually everything NASA did at the time was new. And ultimately to succeed in this endeavor, the NASA team had to execute against the vision and ideas. From the Mercury missions and the likes of Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter and John Glenn, through Gemini, to the culmination of Apollo 11 and the moon landing on July 20, 1969 with Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, this almost decade long endeavor epitomizes for me the Innovation Trifecta of strategy, ideation, and execution. It's all pretty amazing when you think about it.

I am still in awe of this accomplishment.

As a footnote to this blog entry, the Discovery landing this past weekend also reminded me of a business trip to Florida I took over a decade ago. I remember the day, or rather the moment in question, very vividly. On October 29, 1998 I had dropped off some colleagues at Tampa International Airport and then headed south. I was flying out of Fort Myers later in the day. As I made my way down I-75 towards Fort Myers, listening and singing to songs on the radio, I began to see a few cars parked on the side of the road. As I drove further, more and more cars were lined up, stopped on the road. It seemed odd but I didn’t think much of it. I kept singing away. At some point though I noticed people out of their cars, pointing to the east. Something was obviously going on. I turned off my radio and looked out my window. There in the sky, headed towards the heavens was the Discovery space shuttle – mission STS-95. It had just launched. The shuttle and its rocket thrust were clearly visible even from the Gulf side of the Florida. It was an incredible sight. On board this particular shuttle mission was a 77 year old man by the name of John Glenn. It was his return into space nearly four decades after his original Friendship 7 mission back in 1962. Chills went up my spine. The hair on my neck stood up. A symbol of the trifecta had returned.

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