Innovation in Orbit: Insights From NASA and SpaceX

Innovation is at the heart of space exploration. In order to explore the universe, organizations like NASA and SpaceX have been pushing the boundaries of what we know, creating spaceships, and launching humans literally out of this world.

As a former NASA astronaut, Garrett Reisman has a lot to share on this topic. He spent 107 days in space, completing three different spacewalks. Afterward, he worked as an advisor at SpaceX with Elon Musk, pushing forward innovations like the Crew Dragon Spacecraft and the Falcon 9 Rocket.

Garrett is a strong believer in the power of creativity. “Science fiction inspires us to make science fact,” he says. “Before you can actually design something, you have to imagine it.”

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, Garrett walks us through his experiences in space and what he’s learned about teamwork, innovation, and creative problem solving along the way.

 


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Embrace Change

In aerospace, where the stakes are high and decisions can be a matter of life or death, it’s often difficult to innovate. “There's a natural human tendency to clamp down on change,” says Garrett, “but some of our biggest failures occurred because we didn’t make a change.” So how do you keep a creative mindset, when the pressure is on?

Garrett reframes this way of thinking. “There are consequences if you make a change without thinking it through,” says Garrett. “But there also can be consequences if you do nothing. And often that side of the equation is neglected.”

Resisting change is not the solution. “If you focus on eliminating risk, you get trapped in a situation where the only way to accomplish that is to stay home,” he says.

As Garrett says, “innovation is not a nice-to-have, it’s mandatory.” At SpaceX, teams are encouraged to reach for ideas that go beyond small, incremental improvements. “Elon [Musk] doesn’t care if your idea is twice as good as the last thing we did.” Instead, he cares about how innovative, creative, and outside-of-the-box it is.

 


“Science fiction inspires us to make science fact all the time—before you can design something, you have to imagine it.”
Garrett Reisman, NASA Astronaut & Senior Advisor at SpaceX


 

Take Strategic Risks

It’s also important to embrace failure as a necessary part of innovation. “Failure is encouraged at SpaceX,” he says. “If you're not failing at something, you're not trying.” The company is set up for employees to swiftly adapt so they can confidently change directions once they realize they’re doing something wrong.

Managing risk doesn’t mean eliminating it. Rather, it means being strategic about where and when you fail. You can move fast and experiment when the stakes are low, and take a different approach when the consequences are high. For example, when Elon first flew the Falcon Heavy rocket, he launched it with a car inside the cockpit. This allowed him to feel more comfortable with the risk because no one would die if it failed. Elon celebrated the failures that ultimately led to SpaceX’s success.

In Garrett’s eyes, the most important part of failure is also how you react to it. “The risk of making a quick decision is that you make a wrong decision,” Garrett explains. “But if you can recover from that wrong decision quickly, then you can get to the right answer much faster.

 


“There’s a natural human tendency to clamp down on change out of fear, but some of our biggest failures occurred because we didn't make a change.”
Garrett Reisman, NASA Astronaut & Senior Advisor at SpaceX


 

Set a Schedule for Grand Visions

One thing that can help with innovative cultures is setting a schedule for grand visions. At SpaceX, teams created green-light schedules, the launch timelines they would follow if everything went perfectly. While you might expect the pressure of a schedule to lead to negative consequences, it’s often beneficial. A green-light schedule works because it encourages people to believe in success, so Garrett advises holding onto it as long as you can.

“If you relieve all the scheduled pressure, you basically get nothing done,” says Garrett. “The important thing is to plan for the worst case, and make sure that the scheduled pressure doesn't cause you to do something unintelligent.”

 

 

Build Trust

In order to experiment, take risks, and innovate, you need trust in your team. It’s the unifying glue to help them navigate the unknown.

In space, you have to live in close quarters with other astronauts, so it’s crucial to get along. And not only do you work with your crewmates, but you also have to collaborate remotely with your Mission Control team on the ground—and there can be dangerous consequences if you aren’t fully aligned and trusting of each other. How do you prepare for these group scenarios?

To start, it’s important to select people who can thrive in these conditions. Beyond that, it’s a matter of spending time together and learning about one another’s goals, habits, and working styles.

With his team, Garrett did survival training exercises, from completing a river expedition in Utah to trekking outdoors in Russia during the winter. “You have to survive for two days without a sleeping bag and without a tent in the wilderness,” he says. “You go through things like that as a team, and that can’t help but build camaraderie.” When you’re forced to lean on each other, you tend to bond quickly.

Whenever possible, it’s helpful to bridge gaps across teams as well. On these survival missions, the team invited members of Mission Control to join so that they could establish a strong, collaborative working dynamic before launch.

 


“When you’re forced to lean on each other, you tend to bond quickly.”
Garrett Reisman, NASA Astronaut & Senior Advisor at SpaceX


 

Prioritize Design

Although the world of aerospace relies on science and heavy-duty engineering, design is still highly valuable. At SpaceX, Elon insists that the rockets and spacesuits are sleek and visually appealing. This’s not a popular idea for many in the industry, who believe that form should follow function. “It was a bit off-putting, to be honest,” admits Garrett. “Like why are we wasting resources and time trying to make it look good? All that’s important is that it works.”

However, he quickly converted from a skeptic to a supporter when he realized Elon’s ultimate vision. “His objective is not just to satisfy this one government contract to provide transportation,” he explains. “He is trying to get the entire world excited about a positive, hopeful vision of our future existence as a spacefaring civilization.”

To encourage people to live on Mars, you need to generate a lot of excitement—and you can’t get that level of support for something that doesn’t look impressive. When Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken flew SpaceX's Crew Dragon into orbit and back, it was important to pay attention to the feel of the moment. “Elon knew it was going to be an iconic image, and he was hoping that image would jumpstart a great excitement about our future,” says Garrett.

 

 

Align Everyone Around Your Mission

There’s a famous story of when President John F. Kennedy visited NASA. As he was walking to a presentation, he saw a janitor cleaning the hallway and asked, “What do you do here?” The janitor answered, “I'm helping to put a man on the moon.” It’s a powerful anecdote to show how pervasive a strong mission can be.

Similarly, at SpaceX, even the baristas at the coffee bar will state their mission of helping to make human life multi-planetary. This is supported by the murals on the walls, which depict pictures of Mars being terraformed. “It’s just all around you, you can’t help but get caught up in it,” says Garrett. It’s important to have a clear sense of mission and purpose that your team or organization can get behind.

Ultimately, Garrett has strong advice for spreading a culture of innovation. “You have to immerse in it,” he says. “The message must be very clear, articulated concisely, and reinforced all the time.”


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