Mars, Robots and Laboratories in Space

Jones Partners Thought Leadership Series

Dr. Ellen Ochoa
Astronaut and Director
Johnson Space Center

Yael Hochberg
Ralph S. O'Connor Associate
Professor in Entrepreneurship
Jones Graduate School of Business

Lean, agile and adaptive. It makes NASA sound like any other organization responding to changes in their environment. Except they’re not just any other organization. Not only does the director of the Johnson Space Center (JSC) think tactically about the people they have in space “every minute of every day, keeping them safe and keeping them productive,” she also grapples with the future of human space exploration and landing on Mars. Just another day at the office.

Dr. Ellen Ochoa, a veteran astronaut and the 11th director of the Johnson Space Center, joined Yael Hochberg, Ralph S. O’Connor Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship, to discuss launching the Johnson Space Center’s change initiative 2.0 and what open innovation means to NASA during the final Jones Partners Thought Leadership talk of the academic year.

Hochberg pointed out that the last 40 years have seen a paradigm shift in how organizations approach research and development. It used to be that NASA hired the best and brightest to do everything for them, from astronauts to engineers. In those days of closed innovation, NASA had complete control over every element of design and would not shy away from cost, improvements and changes to ensure the safety of the astronauts and success of the mission.

That self-reliant model worked for much of the 20th century, according to Hochberg, but growth couldn’t continue indefinitely.

“Today, the NASA budget is less than what we’d been planning for,” Ochoa said. “We need to operate differently.” The entire agency runs on one half of a percent of the federal budget, with one quarter going to Johnson Space Center, down from four percent at the height of the Apollo program. “We still have big ambitions. We just can’t do it the same way as before. JSC wants to push that boundary. If we think about having partners outside of NASA, we can do more.”

It’s that attitude that escorted open innovation into the hallowed halls of the Johnson Space Center.

They now seek solutions from non-traditional sources, including their own open innovation site called NASA@work. “We have a lot of problems to solve — 32 different human risks onboard the International Space Station (ISS) alone,” Ochoa said. “For instance, eyesight changes in space. We threw out a challenge on three different open innovation sites looking for an algorithm to be used with medical equipment already onboard the ISS. A lab at UCLA had one. We can get further down the path to solutions this way.”

Along with learning about NASA’s operational projects with human exploration — specifically building the path to Mars — the Shell Auditorium crowd gained insights about commercial cargo partnerships with companies supplying the space station, such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, the commercial crew program with Boeing and SpaceX, and Orion exploration flight test with Lockheed Martin. And there were more. “Relationships with Houston associations are vital,” Ochoa said. JSC partnerships include the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston Technology Center, Bay Area Houston, Rice University, University of Houston,, BayTech and Pumps & Pipes.

Collaboration already plays a big role in Johnson Space Center's future. Not only is JSC interested in “getting our challenges out beyond the aerospace industry and pooling our resources,” according to Ochoa, the center understands that industries are interested in what they’re doing as well. That two-way street is allowing the Johnson Space Center to transform itself in order to remain the leader in the human space flight world.

It's a sustainable model for innovation and change that suits just about any "lean, agile and adaptive" business organization.