Open Innovation Boost to Space Exploration

Published Feb-20-11

Open innovation is just what the doctor ordered as a global network of software programmers help NASA flight surgeons refine medical kits for future long-duration space missions.

NASA, United States

The Story:

Open Innovation Boost to Space Exploration NASA has no shortage of tough technical problems to crack, and though the space agency may be packed to the rafters with top intellects it realizes that it sometimes needs external help to create solutions, which is why it has warmly embraced open innovation.

“The Space Life Sciences strategy involves developing collaborative business models to drive innovation,” said Dr. Jeffrey Davis, director of NASA’s Space Life Sciences Directorate (SLSD).

In July 2010 TopCoder (a company that administers computer programming contests) announced the successful completion of a pilot project in which the global community of software programmers was asked to help NASA develop a new generation of capabilities that its crews will need to live and work in space.

Open innovation to solve medical challenges

A contest had been conducted by NASA, TopCoder, Harvard Business School and London Business School that wanted participants to come up with new mathematical algorithms that could determine the optimal contents of medical kits for future manned missions.

As NASA turns its attention to long duration missions on the International Space Station (ISS) the Moon and Mars, a greater depth and higher level of pre-planning will be necessary and that involves more analysis of available data.

Mission simulation programs and physiologic modeling applications that flight surgeons and mission planners use to evaluate, plan, prepare and deal with possible medical scenarios are all algorithm intense. Hence the need for fresh thinking.

During the course of the competition TopCoder members delivered 2,833 distinct code submissions and created a plethora of enhanced solutions that NASA is going to adapt for use on International Space Station missions. This was the first time that the space agency had used TopCoder’s network of more than 250,000 software enthusiasts from over 200 countries.

Top flight ideas

Submissions were compared with results from an existing computer model that had already simulated likely medical scenarios and outcomes during long-duration missions. And on offer to the winners was $24,000 in cash prizes as well as seats to watch remaining shuttle mission launches.

The top solution providers in this open innovation contest were Blazde from the UK, Chokudai and Imazato of Japan, Marcadian of Indonesia and WLeite of Brazil.

“This experimental competition is one example of our ongoing commitment to finding new approaches to problem solving and successfully managing our portfolio,” added Dr. Davis.

Open innovation for a competitive edge

The adoption of open innovation is creating cost-effective solutions for NASA and helping it to tackle some of the toughest and most important challenges faced by US space program.

The Obama administration has asked government agencies to use contests and challenges to advance technology and make US science and technology more competitive overseas. NASA has taken this message to heart, offering numerous competitions to software developers, interested parties and the general public.

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