“A small step for a man. A giant leap for mankind.” This is still many people’s primary association with the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, better known as NASA. Having gained global recognition with its Apollo program, which led to first-man-on-the-moon Neil Armstrong’s infamous quote, the agency’s golden age is largely remembered as the 1960s, when funding peaked at 4.5% of the federal budget. Taking a deeper look into NASA’s evolution since then, however, reveals that much has happened and NASA has successfully reinvented itself through a concerted organizational change effort. Despite tightened funding, increased global aerospace competition and collaboration, and an ever more complicated political and regulatory arena, NASA has gone from being a hierarchical, closed system to an open network organization, embracing collaboration and agility.
In its next evolutionary phase, the agency is betting on digital transformation to power further progress. “In June 2020, we concluded that NASA’s open network approach requires us to rethink the way we work in the digital realm,” says Jill Marlowe, who was officially appointed NASA’s Digital Transformation Officer in October 2020, following a 30+ year career across the agency. She leads NASA’s digital transformation in an effort to unlock the next frontier of evolution for the agency.
NASA is no longer the Houston-based Apollo Mission Control Center that the baby boomer generation remembers from when they watched the moon landing in 1969. “The NASA of today looks very different than the NASA of the past. We are still about creating breakthroughs for humankind in air, space and science, but in the future, we will no longer need to direct every detail of a mission. We have transformed into a more egalitarian organization, tapping the best ideas from anywhere. The problem is: our digital efforts are not always well connected,” Marlowe points out.
This has inspired the agency to adopt an enterprise approach to digital transformation, “We needed a plan to connect our efforts, but we did not want to overly constrain our open network way of working. And we needed a way for NASA’s organizations to see when pursuing digital solutions as a collective is better than doing work as sub-organizations, alone. This intent led us to create a 3-pronged backbone to our digital transformation,” explains Ron Thompson, Chief Data Officer and NASA’s Deputy Digital Transformation Officer. The backbone he refers to consists of digital building blocks enabling the digital transformation, a transformation architecture that ensures integration, and digital transformation grand challenges.
When it comes to the digital building blocks, or “strategic thrusts”, Chief Data Officer Thompson believes in the power of data. “We have six cross-cutting thrusts, but data is the bedrock of it all. Doing away with silos and setting up a data warehouse is a first priority,” he argues. Marlowe nods, “Data is absolutely foundational – and so are our people. Nurturing a digital culture and mindset along with new digital skills, and growing transformational leaders is key. These people also need a seamless collaboration environment that lets them work together and with our partners. We consider data, culture and workforce, and collaboration to be the 3 foundations of our 6 thrusts.” The other 3 thrusts build on this foundation, starting with something Marlowe only half-jokingly calls “model-based everything”. Amiably referred to as “MBx”, this means digital models, integrated together, are envisaged to be the future norm of dealing with complex questions, while increasing speed to respond. Next, Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will augment human intelligence with machine intelligence to rapidly extract insights from the models and data. The final thrust aims to redesign NASA’s processes to eliminate complexities, optimize operations for efficiency, and automate as much low value work as possible so people can focus on high value efforts. Seasoned NASA executives with hands-on experience lead efforts in each of the 6 building blocks. This includes, for instance, Edward McLarney as NASA’s AI/ML transformation lead, focused on supporting data science with these technologies, and helping lead digital transformation integration.
“Next is where our transformation architecture comes in. It is the business architecture we aspire a transformed NASA to operate in going forward. As such, it describes how the building blocks integrate to enable the next generation IT systems that will power our future operating model,” McLarney illustrates. The digital transformation team works closely with NASA’s Chief Information Officer to walk the fine line of securely marrying together the legacy of a federal agency with the requirements of a digital transformation that even private sector organizations struggle to execute on, despite much reduced limitations and shifting direction from the regulatory and political sidelines.
The final piece of NASA’s enterprise approach is the agency’s digital transformation grand challenges – compelling yet achievable real-world challenges facing a big part of the NASA team. “This may include topics such as the future of work, meaning how we strategically take advantage of a geographically agnostic workforce and create the culture and cyber-physical environment for them to best operate,” Marlowe says. The idea is that these grand challenges serve as a lightning rod to catalyze digital mindsets across NASA and focus the development and adoption of shared enterprise solutions.
While these grand ambitions are the long term targets, the agency recognizes the importance of early wins to get buy in from teams, and the necessity to focus on how both early wins and big picture ambitions support the agency’s missions. NASA’s value extends well beyond a single flagship focus on spaceflight. The agency has delivered many technologies for society, including water filtration systems, UV coating on spectacles, and satellite-based search-and-rescue. In keeping with these diversification efforts from the past, Marlowe and her team are considering a broad range of areas where a digitally transformed agency can have impact. “An example is a COVID contact tracing application, using wearables and phone data,” points out Patrick Murphy, Director for Strategic Planning & Integration for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, who – like Marlowe – has a multi-decade history at NASA.
Other frontiers include a digital twin of NASA’s Orion spacecraft for their Artemis Mission, a program to return astronauts to the lunar surface as a proving ground for eventual human exploration of Mars. “This is very close to NASA’s mission around human spaceflight,” Marlowe says. Besides human spaceflight and the space technology that powers it, other missions where NASA is looking to add value through a digitally transformed operating model are exploring the origins of the universe and aeronautics research. It is primed to accelerate all of these mission areas, given increased attention to the science of climate change, the emergence of new aviation markets, and a burgeoning interest in commercial space flight. That said, NASA itself has no intent of competing with commercial space companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin or Boeing. Instead, their goal is to encourage and stimulate the commercial space economy and assume the role of a facilitator in managing air space, or push the space exploration edge further, for example, coordinating Artemis and Mars missions.
With NASA’s expansive vision and multi-part transformation strategy, it could be tempting to over-plan, becoming paralyzed with analysis, avoiding risk and fearing failure. Instead, Marlowe and Thompson are emphasizing good-enough planning, rapidly pursuing early win projects, learning and pivoting as needed, iteratively growing a transformation architecture, and bringing it all together by focusing on a handful of grand challenges. They are encouraging transformation agents to take risks in appropriate areas, seeking rapid learning and progress through both successes and failures. Or, as Marlowe puts it, “All of this is a giant leap for the agency. But we are willing to fail fast, as long as we fail forward.”
The author gratefully acknowledges the support for this article by the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard (LISH) and the team at NASA, including but not limited to Jill Marlowe, Ron Thompson, Patrick Murphy, Edward McLarney and Steve Rader.