Innovation In Space: An Astronomical Feat
If we take advantage, it will have the biggest benefit that anyone’s ever seen
Tomas J Soderstrom is the Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He’s excited about how the world is becoming more efficient, more curious and more exploratory, and he believes space is hugely important for humanity from our potential to redirect asteroids to the terabytes of data we can collect on carbon emissions via satellite. The game is changing, and it’s humankind making it all possible.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I grew up in a very small town in Sweden, and I would never in a million years have imagined I’d be working at JPL in the United States. When I grew up I wanted to be a journalist, in Sweden. That was my dream, but dreams change. When I finished high school, friends said I should come to the US and swim. I was a swimmer. And I thought ‘ok, I’ll give that a try’. And long story short, I did get invited to swim at a school here, in California, in Los Angeles, and one winter turned into two, two turned into three, and three turned into forever. I’ve been here many years now, but certainly never would I have dreamed of it when I grew up.
Could you tell us a bit about NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and your work?
My title is Chief Technology and Innovation Officer. I used to be a CTO, which normally stands for Chief Technology Officer. I like to think of it as Chief Toy Officer. Because today’s toy is tomorrow’s tool, but you don’t really know which toy will become a tool until you play with it. So we’re bringing some playfulness into how we explore space and help humanity search for Earth 2.0, redirect an asteroid, send humans to mars — and those are just some of the things we’re working on right now, including exploring icy planets to see if there’s life there. The exploration, the early prototyping, the rapid and agile iteration will lead to lasting successes. And there are of course many rapid failures, but if they’re small and they’re fast, why not make it all fun? This can lead to success. So that’s kind of how I look at the future.
NASA is of course an extremely future-focused organisation. What do you see as its biggest challenges over the next decade, and how is it overcoming them?
I think the challenge is one of opportunity, they’re one and the same. Part of what we’re doing is to further humanity, further mankind, being able to find earth-like planets. And we’ve found several, we don’t know how earth-like they are yet. We’re looking at finding life out there. We’re looking to be able to redirect an asteroid, being able to land humans on Mars. All of those things, there really is no immediate commercial value there. So we need the brightest and the best people we can find, to be on these massive transformative purposes. But those people are also being courted by Facebook, by Microsoft, by Google, all of those big companies, and now of course lots of startups. So the challenge is to really track and retain the talent that it takes to make this happen. And part of the solution is to partner with everyone who’s interested in this. So I think that’s probably the biggest challenge.
There’s also the opportunity in that just about nobody does what we do, looking for these things that NASA looks for, and NASA and JPL have been voted best places to work for many years going. You get to do something you don’t get to do anywhere else. So I think the challenge is competition for talent. The opportunity is extraordinary. Intergalactic!
Why do you think the average person should care about space?
Well, not to be morbid, but if a really big asteroid came and hit us one day, that’d be a really bad day! For not just us, but everybody. So somebody has to care about it. Somebody has to figure out how to redirect an asteroid. If we one day needed to export humanity, we’d need to have a place to go. Somebody has to try and search for Earth 2.0. Human nature is exploratory, we’ll always want to expand. So why should people care about space? Because it affects all of us, it is all of our future. It’s the future of humanity that we’re looking at.
Do you think space travel is changing what it means to be human?
I do. And it’s a very pertinent question. When you talk to astronauts, and I’ve talked to several, who have actually been looking back at earth from space (I have not, I wish I had!) — what you hear is they get a much bigger perspective. They look back at earth and they say ‘why do we have wars?’ It’s such a fragile little place, it’s about humanity. So they get a very different perspective looking back at earth as a unified thing, not as a whole bunch of different countries, perhaps fighting with each other. That’s one way.
The other way is that a space traveller is an explorer who’s exploring for all of humanity. So I think science and engineering and space is a great ambassador for collaboration across all of humanity. Sounds geeky, but I’m a proud geek! (Future Crunch note: YES! We’ll high five to that.)
Some people might not know NASA and JPL aren’t just focused on space, but also on Earth. What sort of work do you do concerning the planet we live on, and why?
From JPL’s perspective, we send out spacecraft or satellites that orbit the earth. As they orbit the earth they look back at the earth using different types of instruments. For instance, they look at carbon. Is there too much carbon coming up that could lead to global climate change? They look at water. Where is the water table, is it rising? Is it shrinking? So we have satellites in space that are looking back, able to predict droughts, able to predict floods. Now we have two new ones, and they’re always in collaboration with other countries. We’ll be able to look back on the water table on earth, whether in rivers, or in lakes or even reservoirs, and circle it every few weeks.
So now we can map all the earth’s water, which means you’ll be able to farm much better, you’ll be able to prepare for unusual disastrous events. Even things like malaria, because mosquitoes need water. And look at earthquakes and tsunamis, all of those things are earth science in nature. So when you look at the earth from space, you get a very different perspective. It’s all about perspective. And as you look over several years you get data, data we can actually use. We’re not into making policy, we’re interested in looking at the data and presenting the data to anyone who cares. Luckily, people do care.
What does digital disruption mean for NASA and other large organisations?
I spend my time looking at disruptors. And then I prototype them. If something’s likely to disrupt us, we prototype it, prototype meaning how will it affect us? So we look at something called ‘the next IT decade’. The next IT decade is the next 3 years, because if you look at humans, there’s really a human decade every 3 years in IT. It moves so fast. So a disruptor is not a bad thing. The word disrupt tends to mean bad; a disruptor is only a bad thing if you didn’t see it coming. So by being able to look at disruptors, were able to prototype them, predict them, and by the time they disrupt us, we were already already there.
What are some of the disruptors? When the first iPhone came, it was the first smartphone, that was a disruptor. And the disruptor wasn’t the phone, it was the apps. All of a sudden, you’d be able to use your smartphone and have access to just about everything. Another disruptor was tablets when they came. Cloud computing may be one of the biggest disruptors of them all. We saw all of these coming, and we decided these could disrupt us so let’s test them.
Eight years ago we started playing with cloud computing. At the time it was a toy, something you backed up your music to so you didn’t lose it. Certainly could have nothing to do with an enterprise. Or could it?
So we decided to prototype it and test it. And now, just about everything we do is in cloud computing because we don’t have to own the servers, we don’t have to have the data centres, we can have infinite capacity for storage. And we have done things for a fraction of the cost we could do before. Like how we process carbon dioxide data, all of it that’s been collected. We’re talking hundreds or terabytes of data. And we’ve reprocesssed that for a tenth of the cost and in a tenth of the time that it would have taken the old way. So the disruptors are very powerful, and they’re a good thing if you see them coming.
Some of the new ones coming are AR and VR, and we’re already using that. You can explore Mars using your Hololens. We use a lot of Google Glass to do prototypes. Another disruptor is self driving cars and automation. We have self-driving cars — problem is we only have a couple of them and they’re on Mars! But they drive themselves. So can we take advantage of the huge disruption coming from the self-driving cars community in space? We think we can.
Another disruptor is robotics, and we have robots that swim, that fly, that hop…and of course that fly into space. The miniaturisation that’s happening with all the tech means we can impact that and partner with industry. Other disruptors are of course smart watches, smart shirts, smart earring, smart rings…everything smart! They mean everything ties into your smartphone, and then your body. You wear sensors on your body which report to your smart phone, talk to your doctor or your tennis coach, and the analytics that go into that are tremendous. So it’s kind of the quantified self that’s driving the next level of AI, which is the other disruptor were now looking at. Whether you call it AI, machine learning, deep learning, digital assistance — that’s probably the biggest disruptor of all. And if we take advantage if it, it’ll have the biggest benefit that anyone’s ever seen.
What are the biggest technological challenges that affect humans’ interaction with space?
I want to talk about space, but also about enterprises. One of the key challenges is to be able to take advantage of consumer tech in the enterprise. Because we all have legacy, things we’re used to using. Call it ‘classic apps’. Now you want to bring in the new way of doing things and it doesn’t necessarily mesh easily with the way we’ve always done things. So changing how we work is one of the biggest opportunities and biggest challenges for any enterprise.
What does that mean for space? Everything. Because the people who put spacecraft in space, they’re not the martians. They’re the people on earth who want to use the latest technology and the latest tools. And the faster we can get them access to all that data from the devices they’re comfortable working on, including tying in AI, digital assistance and things like that, then they can put better spacecraft on the surface of Mars, or Europa (one of the Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter), and other planets quicker. So it all comes back to changing how we work.
At JPL, we like to call ourselves an 80-year-old startup! Because it’s a very entrepreneurial place. And so being able to take all that energy and harness it and steer it in a way that people can use the tools they want to do that wonderful work they do: that’s the challenge and the opportunity. Not just for NASA and for JPL, but for all enterprises out there.
Do think all businesses should think like a startup to some extent?
Every startup is a life or death experiment in technology. So if you look at all of that together, its like a petri dish of innovation that we can take advantage of — and we are. We actually mentor many startups and work with them and learn from them, of course realising that there’s a risk because it may not be proven, but there’s a risk to every enterprise out there.
What makes you most optimistic about the future? What are you most excited about?
I am extremely optimistic about the next gen of explorers. The new generation coming in are very IT-savvy. They are used to using the latest tech; they expect to see them and use them and be able to take advantage of them, and it’s anything from apps to the cloud. It’s the impatience of needing to do something as quickly as possible. I think that’s the power. The speed is changing. Agile development, cloud computing, the partnering that goes on between government and commercial. In the space business in the US, it’s a very positive thing. And all the startups that are coming out in space and outside.
When I grew up, I looked into space an I saw something yellow out there. Then I watched TV and I saw people landing on that yellow thing, the moon. The amazing thing was that they could do it. That’s incredible. Now, the next gen is not even asking if they can do it. They’re assuming they can do it. And they’re asking ‘what will we find?’
I think just that change in attitude will drive us much much farther, and faster. We’re going to be able to ask the big questions and actually get answers. Is there life out there? Can we send people to Mars? Is there an Earth 2.0? Can we redirect an asteroid? Can we predict floods, droughts and all those things? I think these questions will be answered in my lifetime, which I never thought was possible. So I’m extremely optimistic about new technologies, and the people who drive those new technologies.