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Innovating What We Do and How We Do It

JPL infuses innovation into all of our missions. Beyond the Sky Crane, numerous other testaments to imaginative thinking enhance our flight projects and programs. On the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, we introduced a paperless Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations system that allows engineers to pull up and redline drawings on a touchscreen on the cleanroom floor. The same system has been implemented on the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project.

In the JPL Innovation Foundry, novel approaches are infused into our missions from the initial concept through proposal submission. Leveraging knowledge and experience of both internal and external partners, the A-Team facilitates small, focused groups of subject matter experts to generate innovative ideas and apply sophisticated analytic tools to assess their feasibility – giving mission concepts the best start possible. Team X uses concurrent engineering methods to bring together mission design specialists in the same place and time to rapidly design and analyze space mission concepts. This novel approach allows JPL to reduce the time it takes to produce an integrated point design from months to weeks.

Innovation in technologies benefiting missions of the future is evident as well in our fieldwork. Lab researchers have been developing the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration prototype, an under-ice rover studying the methane-rich lakes along the Alaskan permafrost, a technology that could one day explore oceans under the ice layers of planetary bodies. Full-scale LDSD prototypes, tested in supersonic flights near Hawaii in 2014 and 2015, are already providing insights into solutions necessary to safely land crews, cargo, and vehicles. These initiatives could influence technologies used in Mars missions launching as early as 2020.

Innovative pathways in the future

Innovating involves both continuing to pursue areas where we are already strong, and also finding ways to reinforce areas where called for. The quests we undertake will in influence the kinds of innovation we pursue, as will the Lab’s culture. As one example, it is clear that 3-D printing fits well with the one-of-a-kind nature of our projects for NASA, and can lower mission costs by enabling significant cost reductions in fabricating some spacecraft subsystems.

To achieve these ends, we will set goals that align with our broader quests, and develop metrics to measure the performance of our innovation efforts. We will benchmark our innovation approaches against other organizations known for imagination and solicit employee feedback on how well we are supporting their efforts.