Book review: Innovation the Nasa Way, by Rod Pyle
US space agency Nasa has been dubbed "an engine of innovation and inspiration". In this bullet-point-peppered business guide, space analyst Rod Pyle explains how Nasa keeps achieving breakthroughs.
US space agency Nasa has been dubbed "an engine of innovation and inspiration". In this bullet-point-peppered business guide, space analyst Rod Pyle explains how Nasa keeps achieving breakthroughs. Here is his take on how the agency successfully developed its Viking Mars lander that searched for living things:
•Blended the best of government, industry and academia to accomplish a robotic mission that was decades ahead of its time.
•Managed highly divergent science disciplines - and egos - in a collaborative work environment.
•Shrank … instrumentation from the size of a laboratory to the size of a microwave oven.
Pyle's structural, linear style could grow monotonous, but he enlivens his manual with quirky details - in its time, the agency has deployed low-tech tools including a tree-pruning pole, Pyle reveals, and deftly characterises its approach to building its Skylab space station as "innovation by emergency".
He also covers Nasa's fiascos and mavericks, including former Nazi Wernher von Braun, who after building war rockets for Adolf Hitler, helped usher in the space age.
Nasa was born in 1958, spurred by the launch of the Sputnik satellite by Russia. Nasa's high point came just 11 years into its history when Korean war veteran Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon via Apollo 11.
Still, the agency has plenty else to write home about, not least the Mars probe Viking and its unstoppable roving predecessor, Voyager. "In today's world, it would barely qualify as a calculator - and yet, near the outer boundary of our solar system, this machine continues to function well into the twenty-first century," Pyle writes. Amazing.
So too is that Buck Rogers satellite whizzing overhead at 28,000km/h, the International Space Station (ISS). As Pyle says, Nasa should publicise the station's majestic presence more vigorously.
Nasa needs good publicity because its three worst disasters - Apollo 1 (1967), and the shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) - severely dented its aura. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs including Elon Musk and Richard Branson have come to the fore. Ditto China. Through flying its "taikonauts" in a modified Russian Soyuz capsule, China has established a convincing "orbital presence", Pyle writes. The nation is also building a space station of its own, with plans to go to the moon.
With luck, Pyle's guide just might sharpen readers' grasp of the art of invention, which has a surprisingly simple basis: think laterally - blue-sky style - and iterate relentlessly. Nasa's record rests on incalculable quantities of scientific grit.