NASA Engineer at Black Hat: Take Risks, But Do Not Fail

The chief engineer of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab gives the crowed at Black Hat advice on how to innovate successfully.

LAS VEGAS—The chief engineer of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab shared his wisdom Aug. 1 at the Black Hat security conference here on the key steps and best practices that IT people can take to help insure they innovate successfully.

Brian Muirhead is quite literally a rocket scientist who helped lead an era in technology that has enabled NASA to land increasingly sophisticated robotic technology on the surface of Mars. It's a process that taught him a lot about what it takes to innovate and succeed.

Muirhead told the Black Hat crowd that when he was tasked with helping to lead the Mars Pathfinder mission to land a rover on the Red Planet, his boss told him, "I want you to take risks, but do not fail."

Taking risks and not failing is a riddle that every great entrepreneur needs to solve, and it's one that has an answer that NASA has acted upon, he said.

"You need to be creative in what you do and how you do it," Muirhead said. "That is the essence of innovation."

For NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), the challenges and risks are non-trivial. Prior to 1996, when Muirhead and his team landed the Pathfinder on Mars, there had been 30 missions to the Red Planet, and only eight of those had succeeded.

"Landing on Mars is a very hard thing," he said.

Building Innovation

There are a lot of different things that can help guarantee the success of an organization, whether it's NASA or a private company. At the top of the list for Muirhead are people who have a sense of personal commitment and who really care about what they are doing. Employees who take ownership of what they are doing and want to improve the process and their part in it are the type of people that Muirhead said are essential to success.

Managing risk is another core component of innovation.

"At NASA, we're in a risky business and that's also the business that you guys at Black Hat are in," he told the crowd.

When it comes to risky things, Muirhead said there is nothing riskier than the descent and landing of a spacecraft on the surface of another planet. In August 2012, NASA JPL landed its largest craft ever, the Curiosity rover. That landing required NASA JPL to innovate across its systems, with the Curiosity being hoisted to the surface of Mars in its final descent by a sky crane. The sky crane was on the ship in which the Curiosity was berthed during its transit to Mars.

Keys to Success

Muirhead said the keys to success in a NASA mission and in any type of innovation is to test, test and test.

"When you're only one fault away from failure, you need to test as much as you can," he said.

It's also important to develop robust solutions to help protect against unknown issues. Muirhead also stressed that effective communication across development teams is critical.

Leadership plays a key role as well, and rapid decision making, in Muirhead's view, is the hallmark of a successful organization.

"Leaders provide glue and grease," he said. "The glue is what holds things together and, more importantly, the grease is what we do to facilitate people getting their jobs done."

Finally, Muirhead also advised that it's important to celebrate success.

"In conclusion, I want each of you to go out and take risks, but do not fail," he said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.