Lift Off

Blog Post Innovation that Creates New Value

“If the result confirms the hypotheses, you’ve made a discovery. If the result is contrary to the hypotheses, you’ve made a discovery.” -Enrico Fermi, Physicist

Discovery

There was a high level of anticipation in the room, not unusual for the event about to unfold, though particularly noticeable in the clipped tones of the conversations that filled the air. Success and failure, triumph and tragedy, were as closely linked with the room’s occupants, as ‘green’ is to ‘go’; yet, on this day, the singular focus was Discovery. In just over four minutes, history would be made. And then it all stopped. Discovery is not easy because when things happen, it is easier to rely on what the past has taught us than to search for what is possible.

Two weeks later, on April 24, 1990, the process of igniting Discovery was revitalized. This time, all proceeded smoothly until just over 30 seconds before the roar that would be heard for miles. The tension was palpable. The skyrocketing costs associated with another delay had already reached into the millions per month. Discovery costs something, whether in money, intellectual effort, or time.

At approximately 8:30 AM EDT, on April 24, 1990, Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off from Launch Complex 39B, NASA Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. It ferried into space a first of its kind instrument, the size of a school bus, that would expose the far reaches of the universe to observation and discovery—the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Discovery is opening access to new possibilities; opportunities that expand the horizon of what we know and inspire us to know more.

Discovering

Weeks after launch, images sent back to earth from the telescope were significantly degraded in quality. It was further discovered that the primary mirror was compromised and that prior to launch, the mirror was polished to the wrong shape, off by 2.2 micrometers at its edge (the width of a human hair is about 80 micrometers). The error was disastrous; the HST could not perform its intended function. The first space telescope ever to be designed for servicing in space would need a set of glasses. By discovering a fix to this unexpected flaw, and committing to a timeline that would restore the telescope’s original capabilities swiftly, NASA launched a servicing mission in 1993; one year later, the telescope was declared fully operational for its intended use. Four subsequent service missions, the last conducted in May 2009, prepared the Hubble Space Telescope to operate into the 2030’s.

Discovered

Setbacks happen; discovery is an option. The original launch of the Hubble Space Telescope was delayed by over four years, in the wake of the Challenger accident. It was four years after launch that the telescope was fully operational. Since then, NASA discovered new possibilities for astronauts and tools, for repairing orbiting spacecraft; scientists discovered that instruments used aboard the HST to search for black holes in the universe could also be used for distinguishing between benign and malignant tumors in women’s breast tissue.

What I discovered, when watching the launch of Discovery and the Hubble Space Telescope, from the Launch Control Center at Kennedy Space Center, was the power of human ingenuity that could allow the confluence of humans and technology in a majestic partnership of discovery. In the ensuing setbacks to the telescope’s mission, caused by human error, I discovered the power of human resiliency that could allow a concerted and coordinated effort to overcome a highly visible and costly mistake to become a celebrated victory.

As a leader, I have discovered that absent a continuous renewal of discovery and discovering as the basis for each day, I am not leading. I am simply watching others, as if through a telescope that can see the light of a firefly from 7,000 miles away.

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