December 24, 2009 — Vol. 2, Issue 12
Message from the Academy Director
Technology, Knowledge, and Talent
Technology development rests on two pillars: knowledge and talent.
"Out of old fields comes all the new corn," wrote the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The same can be said about technology. Even when it advances in leaps and bounds, new technology always builds on past discoveries.
Those past discoveries provide the knowledge necessary for new breakthroughs. Scholars who study innovation have found that technology development often arises from the synthesis of knowledge or processes from disparate fields or disciplines in new applications. The story in this issue about the resilience of tooth enamel offers a possible example of a future synthesis. As of today, knowledge about how tooth enamel keeps cracks from propagating has no clear application in the aerospace industry. Five or ten years from now, however, researchers in multiple disciplines may have built upon existing research to bridge these gaps and usher in a new generation of composites that are less prone to crack propagation. Developments of this kind can only happen through the widespread dissemination of knowledge.
When we think about technology development, we also tend to focus on the technology and forget about the people. The storied R&D centers of the second half of the 20th century — Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Bell Labs, and, yes, NASA — were great because of the incredible minds that came together in these organizations. Talent attracts more talent. In the absence of world-class talent, technology development simply doesn't happen at the same level as it does in organizations that attract and retain the best and brightest. Institutions facilitate technology development by bringing together resources and talent in an organizational framework, but people make it happen.
Technology development without the proper knowledge or talent, both of which require resources, is a recipe for trouble. The Academy case study "Space-to-Space Communications: In-House Hardware Development>"
(PDF) recounts the difficulties that a new project manager on a technology development project faced when he discovered that he had no engineering drawings (knowledge), none of the designers who had worked on an earlier phase of the development (talent), and a project team with no expertise in the complex radio system architecture that the job entailed. The project encountered serial difficulties until a high-visibility anomaly focused attention on the need for resources that had been unavailable during the development phases of the life cycle. With the right knowledge and talent, the system was reengineered and operated flawlessly for years thereafter.
Technology development is critical if NASA is to continue pushing the boundaries of space exploration. Our success depends on the ability to provide an organizational framework that brings together the necessary knowledge and talent.