NASA, Washington, D.C., USA

The U.S. space agency's crack team of problem solvers relies on agility and innovation to solve out-of-this-world issues.

Todd Steinrock, NASA



When it comes to innovative teams, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is shooting to be in a universe all its own.

The venerable U.S. space agency has a well-documented history of delivering groundbreaking projects (it did put men on the moon, after all).

Yet complex ideas often beget complex problems.

In tackling revolutionary projects, the agency often finds itself up against one-of-a-kind predicaments.

“We have problems that are so unique, no one else in the world is working on them,” says Wayne Hale, deputy associate administrator for strategic partnership at NASA‘s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “There are no consultants that we can hire to solve our problems, so we had to learn to be innovative or we wouldn't get our rocket ships to fly.”


The scale and complexity of NASA‘s problems, along with its intense and strict schedules, demand an innovative and collaborative team empowered to try new ideas quickly—without fear of recrimination.

That's where the Prototype Development Lab team enters the picture.

A small, specialized group of engineers and technicians within NASA, the team's main role is to find solutions to those “hmmmmm-we've-never-seen-i^/s-before” obstacles.

“We decided years ago it was worthwhile to have a group of people on the payroll whose only job is to solve problems,” Mr. Hale says.

Given the variety of things that can go wrong on a project—even ones NASA has delivered a dozen times before—the team keeps pretty busy.

“We may have 20 jobs at a time, depending on who has a need,” says Todd Steinrock, branch chief of the Prototype Development Lab and the team's only project manager. “It's tough to keep 20 clients happy, so I help prioritize tasks, and continually stress milestones and schedules. It keeps us on track.”


Along with managing long-term projects, the Prototype Lab is regularly presented with problems that pop up suddenly and need to be solved in days—or even hours. It's up to Mr. Steinrock and group leads to reshuffle priorities so his team can drop what it's doing and focus on the problem at hand.

Mr. Hale points to the Atlantis space shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009. While crews were working on the project, a rotary knob used to fasten a work light to the outside of the telescope came loose and wedged itself between the shuttle's dashboard and one of its six forward windows.

“The crew couldn't get it out,” Mr. Hale says.

When the shuttle returned, technicians at the Kennedy Space Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA eventually got it loose. But before the next flight of Atlantis, NASA had to determine whether the scratches left behind were severe enough to warrant replacing the window, a costly and time-consuming process.

“The project was a big deal,” Mr. Steinrock says. “If the scratches were too deep, they would have had to take the whole shuttle dashboard apart to get that window out.”

NASA‘s applied physics lab was building a prism-based camera to record the damage. At the same time, Mr. Steinrock's team was asked to come up with a delivery mechanism small enough to carry the camera into the narrow gap between the dashboard and the window panel—without causing further scratching.

“We got together to brainstorm ideas and in about 24 hours we had a prototype,” Mr. Steinrock says.

The team came back with a device designed to fit in the allotted space, with a slot to fit the camera. Teflon rails were added to ensure the device didn't scratch the window and a high-speed ethernet cable was attached to link the camera to a laptop computer.

Ultimately, the tool wasn't necessary, but the shuttle team said it appreciated the effort and was interested in working on future versions.

“It was a very creative solution,” Mr. Hale says. “The key is that you've got to be ready to address problems when they come up.”

And at NASA, they come up fairly frequently. But sometimes a quick fix leads to a long-term solution.

After one of the space shuttle missions, for instance, agency technicians were concerned a ball bearing had cracked within the shuttle's plumbing system and that pieces of it would break loose and fall into the engine. The potential for catastrophic damage was real: The plumbing system inside the space shuttle delivers 1 ton of highly flammable propellant per second during the 8.5-minute launch.


In our world, the key to success is failing as soon as possible so you can move on to the next idea.

—Todd Steinrock



But no one could figure out how to get to the problem.

“We needed to inspect those ball bearings without taking the ship apart, but they were out of reach,” Mr. Hale says. And because the fuel is so volatile, the inspection tool couldn't contaminate the pipes with any debris, such as lint or dust, that could potentially cause combustion.

The Prototype Development Lab team members had already attempted to view the ball bearings with scopes attached to fiberoptic rods, but because the bearings were encased in a frame, they could only see a fraction of the surface.

Once again, the team stepped up and worked out a better solution.

Using a mock-up of the plumbing joint, team members built a series of tools until they found one that could navigate the system and adjust the bearings so they could be viewed from every angle.

“Within three weeks they had a prototype and a week later the final version was ready,” Mr. Hale says. “Now as a matter of course every few flights, we use that tool to inspect the ball bearings.”


The incredibly rapid turnaround process is facilitated by the way the lab is run, as well as the sheer talent of the team.

“The trick is to start with really smart people, then put them together on one team,” Mr. Steinrock says.

Having engineers and technicians working side by side creates greater synergies and moves ideas from concept to reality, sometimes in a matter of hours.

“In this kind of environment, you can find out fast what works and what doesn't. It's an iterative approach,” Mr. Steinrock says. “A lot of our success has to do with making sure the team is empowered, and making sure failure is an option. In our world, the key to success is failing as soon as possible so you can move on to the next idea.”

Despite coming up with time-saving— not to mention budget-preserving—solutions, the Prototype Development Lab team doesn't always get quite the support it deserves.

“Six months after we complete a highly visible project, everyone forgets what we did and we have to justify ourselves all over again,” says Mr. Steinrock, laughing.

It's not just a problem at NASA, Mr. Hale says. As public and private organizations tighten their belts, they invest less and less in innovative research and development.

But that's a shortsighted choice.

“It's hard to put a dollar value on problem-solvers until you have a problem that you need to solve,” Mr. Hale says.

And by then it's usually too late. —Sarah Fister Gale


There are no consultants that we can hire to solve our problems, so we had to learn to be innovative or we wouldn't get our rocket ships to fly.

—Wayne Hale, NASA




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