When it comes to outer space, recent history has proven that the answers to the toughest problems can come from people who have no experience with space travel at all. A 22-year-old college student from Massachusetts built a robotic machine to excavate lunar soil. A retired radio frequency engineer reliably predicted the occurrence of solar flares. 
Historically, NASA, the federal agency responsible for scientific and technological achievements in human spaceflight, aeronautics, and space science, evolved as a hierarchical, closed system. Innovation in space during the 20th century occurred behind closed doors with open government wallets, as the brightest minds in the United States and Soviet Union battled for dominance. Around the turn of the century, the US banded together with international partners to create the International Space Station. Too expensive to build alone, this project introduced NASA to collaboration and soliciting ideas from the outside.
Over the last decade, budget cuts, the commercialization of space exploration, and international competition have flung open NASA’s doors to the masses. Today, NASA models open innovation at its finest for the rest of the federal government by inviting outsiders to augment internal innovation efforts through prize competitions, focused challenges, and crowdsourced solutions.
Open innovation provides invaluable benefits to NASA. Challenges free the federal agency from awarding expensive contracts to past performers with unproven solutions for the future; instead, NASA can pay only for proven results. The prestige and validation, not to mention the cash prize, often incentivize teams to invest significant funds, either their own or fundraised, without tapping into taxpayer funds. Lastly, engaging those from outside the organization endorses risk-taking and out-of-discipline approaches that would likely be deemed too audacious for standardized experimentation within NASA.
Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Unfortunately for all of us, most research and development operations spend disproportionate time seeking solutions at the expense of posing the problem for others to solve. The traditional R&D approach within NASA takes three to five years, relies heavily on negotiations and hierarchy, and induces risk-averse approaches. Meanwhile, the open innovation model speeds up the process from three to six months on average, requires no specialized expertise, and operates without boundaries or constraints.
NYU Stern professor Hila Lifshitz-Assaf studies the effect of open innovation on professional identity within NASA, and she has proven that NASA scientists and engineers themselves serve as the greatest obstacle to open innovation success. The “open innovation model,” she writes, “threatens to deprive the profession of its most prestigious task.” In order to overcome this barrier, managers must support a shift in focus from the “how” to the “why.” Compensation and rewards must encourage solution seeking, rather than problem-solving patents and publications.
Despite the hard work still ahead, looking for answers from the outside has already affected positive change on internal operations. Observing the speed and success of crowdsourced innovation, R&D teams within NASA have revised their organizational charts to poke holes in silos, redesigned their physical spaces to encourage collaboration, and gathered information from outsider submissions to inform their internal projects. As one R&D engineer put it, “The open source mindset transfers us from the innovation-resistant ‘Not Invented Here’ attitude to ‘Proudly Found Elsewhere.’”
Tough problems demand fresh ideas and nearly limitless funds. NASA cannot, and should not, explore space exploration in a vacuum. However, as the balance of power shifts from government to commercial activity, how can NASA ensure that partnership discoveries benefit the masses, and not just the powerful few? Similarly, what can NASA do to retain its top talent in a world where the best ideas can come from anywhere? As the world gears up to put a (wo)man on Mars, it is vital that NASA communicates and facilitates an open innovation strategy with close consideration for their most valuable resource: their team.
 Hall, L. (Ed.). (2015, March 04). Success Story: Regolith Excavation Challenge. https://www.nasa.gov/content/regolith-excavation-challenge-0
 How Open Innovation is Solving Some of NASA’s Trickiest Problems. Knowledge@Wharton (2013, April 03). http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/how-open-innovation-is-solving-some-of-nasas-trickiest-problems/
 Gonzalez, L. H. (2018, April 30). The Reinvention of NASA. https://hbr.org/2018/04/the-reinvention-of-nasa
 Hall, L. (Ed.). (2015, March 12). Prizes, Challenges, and Crowdsourcing Advance NASA’s Mission. https://www.nasa.gov/content/prizes-challenges-and-crowdsourcing-advance-nasa-s-mission-and-outreach
 Sloane, P. (2011). A guide to open innovation and crowdsourcing: Advice from leading experts in the field. London: Kogan Page.
 Lifshitz-Assaf, H. (2018). Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries at NASA: The Critical Role of Professional Identity in Open Innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 63(4), 746–782. https://doi.org/10.1177/000183921774
 Lifshitz-Assaf, Hila, Michael Tushman, and Karim R. Lakhani. “A Study of NASA Scientists Shows How to Overcome Barriers to Open Innovation.” Harvard Business Review (website) (May 29, 2018).
 Lifshitz-Assaf, H. (2018). Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries at NASA: The Critical Role of Professional Identity in Open Innovation.