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Managing innovative space missions: lessons from NASA

Larry J. Paxton (Member of the Principal Professional Staff at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He received his PhD from the University of Colorado at Boulder from the Department of Astrophysical, Planetary and Atmospheric Sciences. His research interests include the atmospheres of the Earth, Mars, and Venus and the application of instrumentation to remote sensing problems. He has published over 130 papers on planetary atmospheres, instrumentation, remote sensing, and space mission design. He is a member of the International Academy of Astronautics and he belongs to the American Geophysical Union, the American Astronomical Society, and the Society of Photo‐optical Instrumentation Engineers. He is the Project Scientist on the Global Ultraviolet Imager on the NASA TIMED mission, and the Principal Investigator on the SSUSI instrument for DMSP and AURORA for NPOESS.)

Journal of Knowledge Management

ISSN: 1367-3270

Publication date: 1 March 2006



The purpose of this paper is to provide a review of past experience in managing risk and technical innovation in NASA space programs with lessons learned for new unmanned space missions.


The paper examines past performance of space missions and abstracts the lessons learned for the efficient development of cost‐effective space missions.


The paper finds that large organizations build and internalize a culture at odds with risk taking and the rapid deployment of innovative solutions. Actualized management goals are often at odds with the issues that determine or insure the long‐term survival of an organization. A key issue is the management of knowledge within that system: the extrinsic knowledge of the technologies as well as the intrinsic knowledge associated with the perception and acceptance of risk.

Research limitations/implications

Innovation can be seen as being dangerous to the organization. That perception must be managed. The NASA culture that is applicable to human spaceflight may not serve the community or the organization as well when applied to unmanned missions.

Practical implications

The paper provides a simplified and brief perspective on the issues inherent in managing a change in culture in an organization that has a highly public mission.


While the NASA “faster, better, cheaper” program has been considered elsewhere, this paper focuses on the lessons that are applicable to the management of space missions and the development of new, cost‐effective programs. These lessons retain their value, as the new administrator Michael D. Griffin attempts to manage the transition of NASA from an organization that has been in maintenance mode to one that must embrace innovation and stay within a highly constrained funding profile.



Paxton, L.J. (2006), "Managing innovative space missions: lessons from NASA", Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 8-21.



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