NASA’s JPL: Protecting the planet through open, advanced development

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First selfie on Mars, courtesy of the Mars rover

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has achieved a lot of firsts: First flyby of Mars. First interplanetary spacecraft. And first selfie on another planet, to name a few.

They got there by staying at the forefront of technology, said Tom Soderstrom, JPL’s chief technology and innovation officer—who also likes to call himself chief toy officer.

To keep innovating, change how you work

With this legacy of firsts, how will JPL get to the next firsts? In his session titled “Innovation is everywhere: Opportunities in a changing world,” Soderstrom said JPL has to change the way they work.

Once every IT decade (that’s 3 years for you and me) JPL looks at what key disruptors are coming and embraces them. What’s coming now? Innovation in the consumer space. There, innovation happens rapidly, unlike in the enterprise where innovation happens at a glacial speed.

The enterprise space could learn a thing or 2 from the consumer space. So JPL researched human behavior as it relates to IT. They discovered that if engineers and scientists can get tools quicker and see what IT disruptors are coming, they’ll be more productive. And that will help all of humanity.

Now JPL practices what Soderstrom calls E4: Engage and enable everyone and everything. It’s about the power of participation (which just happens to be this year’s Red Hat Summit theme).

Today’s toy is tomorrow’s tool

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Source: Libby Levi

Cloud computing was yesterday’s “toy” (e.g, for storing music) and is now a widely used tool. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the new toy. It’s about taking the output of 1 device as the input to another and benefiting from it easily, quickly, and from any device.

Disruptors like cloud and IoT change the way organizations work. For example:

  • JPL uses the open development methodology and the cloud to keep temperature data for the Mars rovers at their fingertips. Instead of sending screen shots of the data back and forth, scientists can interact with real-time data in the cloud and collaborate with each other.
  • When Curiosity landed on Mars 4 years ago, they put the pictures in the cloud so they could see them right away. Now they can click a data point and see pictures the Mars rover was taking at the time that data point was collected.
  • To prepare for the possibility that an asteroid could get too close to Earth, JPL created a mission to explore how to capture an asteroid, drag it into orbit around the moon, and learn how to redirect it. That mission started in the cloud.

Act like a startup

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Tom Soderstrom, JPL’s chief technology and innovation officer

To engage and enable everyone and everything, JPL had to change from using rules to principles, just like we do in open source. They had to stop waiting on others and be an early adopter so they can influence industry innovators to build products in a way that helps them. Here are 2 examples of how they put E4 into practice:

  • Situational awareness: To enhance their cybersecurity awareness, JPL assigned a note on the piano keyboard to each country from which data traffic comes in off their firewall. They can listen to their firewall to decide what’s normal and what’s abnormal—even as they work on other things.
  • 3-D printing: JPL made 3-D-printed robots that can climb walls like a gecko. Fun, right? Again, today’s toy becomes tomorrow’s tool. Thanks to rapid experimentation, they successfully tested the robots in a zero-gravity simulator (lovingly referred to as the vomit comet). Now the robots will go where no Roomba has gone before—to the International Space Station where they’ll clean its solar panels.

And they’re just scratching the surface.

What the power of participation looks like

It’s not just lip service. Citizens are collaborating with NASA and JPL:

  • NASA Space Apps Challenge brought 15,000 people together at the same time to collaborate in a hackathon to overcome mission-related challenges.
  • Juno Citizen Science will let everyone help NASA study Jupiter. When the Juno spacecraft goes into orbit around Jupiter, citizens can choose which pictures will be taken and how they will be processed.

Innovating together could help us protect Earth for our children and grandchildren. Redirect an asteroid. Find other life in the universe. Or even find Earth 2.0. It’s all about collective crowdsourcing, open source, and collaboration on a quest for all of us, that’s bigger than any one of us.

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