At the end of August, six people from three different nations entered into a dome on a Hawaiian volcano. This team of NASA recruits, each an expert in a different field, will live together for an entire year as part of an experiment into the human challenges involved with a cramped and confined multi-year space exploration, such as a manned-mission to Mars. The experiment may sound like a lofty moon shot, but the mass market application of its findings are not so far off.
As the commercial exploration of space is taking off, the prospect of private citizens spending long periods of time away from the Earth is coming closer to reality. If all goes according to plan, NASA will launch an expandable activity module into low-earth orbit by the end of 2015. The module, an innovation in lightweight and compact materials, is destined to attach itself to the International Space Station (ISS). A success project will subsequently enable the quick and efficient creation of human habitats in other reaches of space.
The module was developed by Bigelow Aerospace, and is being transported to the ISS by a cargo vehicle developed by SpaceX. Both are US-based companies who are partnering with NASA in the latter’s commercial crew programme, designed to encourage the development of privately operated spacecraft to transport astronauts into low-earth orbit. Meanwhile, Boeing unveiled its first spacecraft in September, which will fly astronauts to the ISS. Test flights are set begin in 2017.
These are just a few—albeit out-of-this-world—examples of a growing, global trend for digital partnerships: multiple organisations coming together to collaborate and co-create, often with a big technology development, change or innovation at the centre. According to new research by The Economist Intelligence Unit, commissioned by Telstra, many of these digital partnerships involve commercial and non-commercial partners. One in three (36%) of the 1045 senior executives polled from across industries, including aerospace, says his or her organisation is likely to enter a digital partnership with a government entity over the next 12 months—rising to a high of 42% in Asia-Pacific.
Discovering a new culture
NASA has long commissioned commercial firms to develop and build spacecraft and related technology for transporting cargo. Yet sending humans to space is different, according to Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight. “We’ve never done it this way historically,” he says.
Under its old model, NASA found companies that met its requirements; the agency controlled the entire endeavour and owned the intellectual property on completion of the project. In contrast, the commercial crew model involves public-private partnerships in which the companies own the intellectual property.
“They make the design decisions and we just say at the end of the day whether it has met our safety and performance requirements,” Mr McAlister explains. “That’s been a big change for NASA.”
The payoff for both parties is significant. NASA achieves its objectives in a shorter timeframe and at lower cost (both parties make the up-front investments), while the companies can later sell orbital transport services to their own customers. Had the agency handled projects such as the expandable activity module in the traditional way, Mr McAlister believes it would have come up with the space flight equivalent of an aircraft carrier: a great product but with only one customer— the navy. No one else would be able afford it.
NASA is also experimenting with other, more open forms of collaborative innovation. The Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI) is part of the agency’s effort to get humans from low-earth orbit into deep space. “When we began trying to solve some of the technical problems,” explains Jason Crusan, the COECI’s director, “we realised that we don’t always have the people internally to do it.” The COECI is, in his words, “an open innovation network to engage the wider community in solving the problems we encounter”. These include developing technologies for landers, habitation, life support and flight software development, for example.
Rather than build its own community, NASA decided to try and leverage other technology communities that are working on related problems. None of these communities, points out Mr Crusan, are in aerospace. “That’s quite frankly why we find co-operating with them so useful. We know how to reach the aerospace experts ourselves.” The communities, in turn, are happy to work on the challenges NASA presents them. “We tend to get a higher level of participation in our projects,” says Mr Crusan, “partly because it’s NASA and partly because the problems we’re bringing to them are interesting to their community.”
Getting down to earth
As the Hawaiian dome experiment demonstrates, collaborative innovation is not just about the technology. People still play a leading role in cutting edge development and exploration, while very human challenges and drawbacks can still get in the way. The top two challenges to forming successful digital partnerships, according to our new research, are finding the right balance between co-operation and competition, followed by developing sufficient trust with the other parties.
For NASA, working with external organisations in this way did not come easy. Mr McAlister says that commercial crew’s public-private partnership model has involved a big cultural change for the agency. “On a day-to-day basis it has our people doing different things. We were very control oriented before, and partnerships are very different. It’s been a difficult transition for the agency and one that is still underway.” Mr Crusan explains that part of the cultural challenge is learning how to collaborate with external parties on early-stage research, in contrast to its more traditional customer-supplier model with contracts having clear final deliverables.
What helps is that such partnerships ultimately end up with NASA purchasing services from the partners, even after the early-phase collaborative research. This, says Mr Crusan, reintroduces a clear delivery structure that everyone at NASA can understand. Another intended result is that the agency becomes the first of what the partners hope are many customers for the same service.
Competition for space
Beyond blasting humans into space, NASA’s partnerships have the potential to generate a broader economic benefit a bit closer to home. The commercial crew programme, for example, should ultimately result in a craft that can not only meet NASA’s needs but also serve other markets. In this way, says Mr McAlister, “the programme is coming up with new innovations and creating markets that people never even thought about.”
It is also restoring some national pride and competitiveness to the US, as its long-held space hegemony is challenged by rivals. Indeed, as the commercial exploration of space increases, from communication satellites to private tourism—other countries have taken the lead.
Inmarsat, a UK satellite operator, launched a satellite into space at the same time as NASA’s six person crew entered isolation on US soil. The final piece in its Global Xpress network, a worldwide internet service at ultra-fast speeds, set off on a Russian-made rocket from a launch site in Kazakhstan. “In 2011, there were no US commercial launches worldwide,” says Mr McAlister. “We had ceded or surrendered that market to mostly the Europeans and the Russians and a couple of others.”
Since then, NASA’s investments have, in his view, clawed back market share to about 50-50 as of 2014. By the time the six individuals emerge from isolation in the middle of 2016, this new space race, more competitive and commercially-driven than old, is sure to look completely different—and a lot more collaborative.