Rod Pyle: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Pyle, RodRod Pyle is author of multiple best-selling books on space exploration and innovation for major publishers including Smithsonian, McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins, Prometheus/Random House, Sterling and Carlton. His most recent books are Innovation the NASA Way: Harnessing the Power of Your Organization for Breakthrough Success for McGraw Hill (March 2014), which the Library Journal called “A gripping history of NASA… riveting… [the] writing is superb,” and, Curiosity: An Inside Look at the Mars Rover Mission and the People Who Made It Happen, published by Prometheus/Random House. It is listed as a “Top Ten Science and Tech Book for July” by The Guardian. Rod wrote and co-created The Apollo Leadership Experience for NASA and The Conference Board, which he taught at the Johnson Space Center for C-suite executives from companies like Michelin, Conoco-Philips, Ebay and The Federal Reserve. He continues to give keynotes and seminars on innovation and leadership.

His 2012 Destination Mars (Prometheus) was heralded as “The best recent overview of Mars missions” by the Washington Post, and was selected for Scientific American’s book of the month club. Rod has produced and directed numerous documentaries for The History Channel and Discovery Communications, including “Modern Marvels: Apollo 11” and “Mars: 100 Years of Discovery.”

Rod is a space journalist, writing frequent articles and creating videos for, LiveScience, Huffington Post, NBCNews Online, the Christian Science Monitor and the Daily Telegraph. He is a graduate of Stanford University and the Art Center College of Design, and taught communication studies at the University of La Verne for ten years.

Here is an excerpt from Part 2. To read all of Part 2, please click here.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write Innovation the NASA Way?

Pyle: I was hired in 2010 by The Conference Board to design an experiential Apollo Leadership Training program for C-suite executives and their direct reports. Working with some other experts, we fashioned a compelling and successful program that, according to the reviews, was highly motivating and inspiring. I enjoyed teaching it at the Johnson Space Center. After that, I wanted to write-up some of the things I had discovered both by delving deep into NASA’s history and spending time talking to some of the giants from the space race and shuttle eras. There seemed to be plenty of good books on leadership on the shelf, but none – and I mean, not one – trade book on innovation and NASA. I wanted to fill that gap in the market with NASA’s wonderful stories. I’m working to create a second edition, as there are so many more amazing and inspiring tales to be told.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Pyle: Plenty. The most apparent to me was the passion that these people had, and have, for their work. Talk to anyone at JPL working, for example, on the Curiosity rover. They become so excited that it can be tough for them to get the words out. They live and breathe Mars, and there is nothing else they would rather do. They are passionate, mission-driven fanatics. Isn’t that who we want driving innovation in our own organizations?

Here’s another example: before one of the Apollo flights to the moon, a technician was working on the giant Saturn rocket on the launch pad. He noticed someone hanging around the gantry and told him that he should not be near the rocket. The other guy introduced himself as the commander of the mission about to fly that exact rocket to the moon in a couple of days. The technician thought for a moment, then shook the astronaut’s hand, looking him straight in the eye. He said, “In that case, I just want you to know that nothing in this mission will fail because of me.” I think that about says it all. These folks dedicated themselves heart and soul to the space program, to the mission. If we can imbue the creative people in our own organizations with a sense of mission, and the passion that drives it, we’re 90% of the way there.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Pyle: Honestly, it’s pretty close to the proposal. If there were deviations, they came from the process of extracting lessons form the stories. The book is a collection of stories about NASA’s “finest hours”, to paraphrase Winston Churchill. In each of these stories, there are many lessons on both leadership and innovation – the trick was to find, and adequately explain – the best of them.

Morris: When and why did you first develop your keen interest in space exploration?

Pyle: I was born at the dawn of the space race, so I saw the whole thing play out from a front-row seat (at least as front-row as an adolescent could get), and what a show it was. Imagine rockets thundering off to the moon every two months to engage in great voyages of exploration, these incredible adventures. It was thrilling, just amazing. Then, when Apollo was over, we waited nearly a decade for the shuttle. It flew an impressive range of missions for 30 years and built a space station. All the while, NASA was exploring Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and the other planets. It’s been a privilege to be alive during humanity’s first forays into the solar system.

Morris: In your opinion, to what extent does exploration of space differ significantly from the voyages of earlier explorers such as Polo, Columbus, de Gama, Magellan, Cortes, and Drake?

Pyle: No matter how you slice it, space is hard. Look at one of the Saturn V rockets in Houston or Florida: just the top 12 feet or so on the pointy end came home. All the rest was used up getting there. And as remote as, say, the Antarctic was at the dawn of the 20th century, at least Ernest Shackleton was able to live off the land for years to save his men and get them home. If you have a problem in space, as with Apollo 13, there is no living off the land, no scavenging, no second chances. Whatever you have in that little can with you, and your inventiveness and that of your support on the ground, is all you have. Space is unforgiving.

Morris: In your opinion, how true-to-life were two films, The Right Stuff and Apollo 13? Please explain.

Pyle: Those are very different films. The Right Stuff was a parable, a lyrical story (with much dramatic license taken) about the origins of the space age. It was part mythology and part sitcom. Many liberties were taken and it made for a fun film, drawn from a fun (and somewhat more accurate) book. Apollo 13 represents a very different approach. Tom Hanks is the same age as me, and every bit as much an enthusiast. We witnessed the space race from similar perspectives, and he insisted that they get it right for the film (here the parallels between myself and Tom end, sadly). That’s why they shot so many scenes in NASA’s zero-g plane, 30-seconds at a time. That’s why the hardware is spot-on accurate. Yes, he and Ron Howard also took a few liberties with the true story, but nothing like The Right Stuff. They weren’t trying to create a modern myth with Apollo 13; they just wanted to condense some of the action and tweak a few of the moments to keep the film taut and convey a great adventure. Otherwise, it would have taken eight hours to tell that story. I thought they did a fine job – it was as accurate and true to the history as it could be.

Morris: In my review of your book for various Amazon websites, I neglected to mention another film, From Earth to the Moon. In my opinion, it is superb. What do you think?

Pyle: That HBO mini-series is another Tom Hanks work of passion. Again, there was tremendous attention to detail and accuracy. I think there were times where it slowed the dramatic pacing a bit, but it was worth it. Hanks was, for the first time, dramatically memorializing the bulk of America’s greatest adventure. He used a lot of lesser-known actors, and put his money into great scripting, fine directors and incredibly accurate sets. The result was a wonderfully acted and executed telling of the story of Apollo, from its origins to the end. Nobody will ever do it in quite that way again.

Morris: Opinions about Gravity seem to be somewhat divided. What do you think?

Pyle: Overall, a great romp. The director made some very brave decisions: let space be silent like it really is, use the shuttle in a film after it had been retired, and let Sandra Bullock carry the vast bulk of the film in an outstanding solo performance. The smashup of NASA hardware was hard to watch, and it alienated some people I know. And there were some funky bits of bad physics in the film – memorably when George Clooney is tugging on Bullock’s tether after his forward motion had already been arrested. Something kept pulling on him – some odd non-Newtonian force, like anti-love? – so that they could have the cliche “leave me, save yourself” moment. But it was an intentional space opera/adventure, so overall I think it held together well.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of several passages.

First, Innovation from the Old World (23-26)

Pyle: When Wernher von Braun came to America after WWII, he brought with him a way of doing business that had evolved from his aristocratic origins, through slimly-funded German rocket societies in the 1930’s, and finally via the Nazi war machine. Their methods were not necessarily compatible with the American way of doing things, to say the least. But he and his fellow German engineers (he brought out over 100) took the best of what they had experienced and blended it skillfully with the American way. The result was a branch of NASA that had remarkable lateral communication and where everyone was responsible, at least in part, to help everyone else if they could. He supported this with a passion, and it worked.

Morris: The Dirty Rag (26-28)

Pyle: Rockedyne in Canoga Park, CA built the large rocket engines that powered the Saturn V. When they arrived in Huntsville to be put into the rockets, von Braun’s German engineers tore them apart and reassembled them, bit by bit. Rocketdyne was outraged, until one of the head German engineers at Huntsville showed them a greasy rag he had found inside one of their “completed and inspected” rocket engines, in a space where a ping-pong ball, much less a rag, could have caused disaster. Overarching lesson? It was an object lesson in quality control, told with an elegantly simple, and damning, visual statement.

Morris: Fifty-One Feet of Mean (31-33)

Pyle: The X-15 was an Air Force program to test the limits of hypersonic flight at the edge of space. The evil-looking rocket plane flew 199 times with only a few accidents and one fatal crash. In every case they recovered quickly and moved on, expertly incorporating lessons learned from before. It was a military program and therefore not subject to the same political vicissitudes as the NASA’s civilian program. Overarching lesson? Bigger is not necessarily better, and sometimes fast-track, rough-and-ready programs win the day.

Morris: Finding Mars, and, Goodbye, Martians…Hello, Mars (49-53)

Pyle: When the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew past Mars in 1965, quickly snapping just 22 grainy, low-resolution images of that planet, it was a sea-change in our perceptions about both Mars and the solar system. At a time when almost nothing was known beyond what could be gleaned form an Earth-based telescope, NASA struck gold with its second robotic mission, and engaged the public worldwide with ghostly B&W images of Mars. They had almost flown without a camera onboard, but the dogged determination of a couple of scientists had placed rudimentary camera on the spacecraft. Overarching lesson? If you are going to explore space, you need to take the public along for the ride. From then on, cameras were a part of most of NASA’s missions, whether manned or robotic, and the world was awed by the results.

Morris: How Hard Can It Be? (55-60)

Pyle: Early spacewalks were akin to stunts; exploiting them for useful work in space was a tough nut to crack. NASA labored with this challenge throughout the Gemini years, and only succeeded in the final flight of that program with Buzz Aldrin’s continuous pressing for better preflight simulations. In the end, his ideas – shared by a few others – about water-based training won the day. The overarching lesson? Simulation, and lots of it, was key to success.

Morris: Just a Simple Test., and, “We’re Burning Up” (71-75)

Pyle: In January of 1967, NASA was testing the first flight-ready Apollo capsule with three astronauts, The rocket was not fueled, but the capsule was pumped full of oxygen as it would be in space. But it was at almost 15 PSI instead of the 5 PSI that is used in space. A random spark ignited a fire that killed the three astronauts immediately. As one person put it, “We had a failure of imagination…” – nobody had stopped to really consider what could happen in a pure oxygen environment at those pressures. It was an explosion waiting to happen. It set the Apollo program back well over a year, but was also an effective (though dreadful) wake-up call to NASA: take nothing for granted, evaluate every piece of hardware and every procedure, and assume nothing. Only then might you succeed (NOTE: The Soviet Union failed to do this, and ultimately failed to reach the moon as a result). Overarching lesson? Spaceflight is dangerous, and tolerates few errors. Everything must be taken into account to succeed.

Morris: The Krantz Dictum” (77-81)

Pyle: After the Apollo 1 fire and the deaths of three astronauts, Gene Kranz, the tough ex-marine flight director, assembled the Mission Control team and gave it to them straight: spaceflight is unforgiving. They had been rushing to “beat the Russians” and they all knew it. They had grown sloppy, and had failed to heed their own inner voices. From now on they would be “tough and competent,” and Mission Control would be “perfect.” This speech, in its entirety, is still posted at multiple locations in the control center almost 50 years later. Overarching lesson? Strong, dedicated leadership has become the de-facto way of doing business at Mission Control, and remains so to this day.

Morris: An Urgent Call (140-144)

Pyle: With both Apollo and the USSR’s Soyuz moon landing programs delayed by deadly accidents, the race to the moon was hotter than ever once they got back on track in 1967/68. The CIA had generated reports indicating that the Russians, if not close to a landing, were closing on the ability to at least loop the moon and steal much of Apollo’s thunder. Something needed to be done, and quickly. NASA’s lunar module was nowhere near ready to fly, and the rest of the moon rocket and the Apollo capsule had been little tested with mixed results. NASA’s bold decision? Shuffle the flight schedule and send Apollo 8 to orbit the moon (but not land) before the end of 1968. It was daring and risky… and the Apollo 8 astronauts agreed instantly to take the mission. Overarching lesson? Sometimes you need to make bold decisions and take calculated risks to leap ahead and win the day.

Morris: Coming Home: Bringing NASA’s Lessons to Your Business (263-270)

Pyle: A review of NASA’s lessons learned is of little value unless they can be applied to your own organization. Fortunately there is much to be learned from its nearly 60 years of history. Paramount among these lessons are the need for passion for innovation within the individual, and an environment conducive to innovation created by management. Both parties need to evolve a mission mentality, and commit the time and resources to allow innovation to flourish. Overarching lesson? NASA has achieved this time-and-again throughout their history, and you can too.

Morris: Of all the great explorers throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Pyle: I’ve had a chance to talk to a number of the moonwalkers, the last living X-15 pilot, and some Shuttle astronauts, so I can take them off the bucket list while basking in the memories – those were amazing hours. But if I had to pick one explorer from the past, it would be without a doubt Ernest Shackleton. There are a few reasons. For one thing, he didn’t lose any of his men during either his first push to the pole (when he turned back with just under 90 miles to the goal), or the Endurance adventure (stranded on the ice for over two years), and that is a testament to his leadership qualities (as opposed to Robert Scott). He was indefatigable, raising private money when the British powers-that-be turned their backs on his expedition. And perhaps most remarkably, he was a man who, while a failure in the British business world of the time, was brilliant in the field when the stuff encountered the fan. I find that amazing and inspiring.

Morris: If you were asked to speak at an [begin italics] elementary school graduation ceremony [end italics] and explain why innovative thinking is important to personal growth as well as one’s career (no matter what it turns out to be), that would be your key points?

Pyle: Mostly ones we have heard before: find your passion, then do what you love and success will usually follow. It took me years to trust fate enough to take a flying leap at book authoring a decade ago, and it’s been an incredible journey ever since. I don’t regret the late start, I just spent more time than I should have working in other areas, mostly television. I’d like to see kids shortcut that; possibly put off major diversions (like children of their own, and mortgages) long enough to be able to afford to fully explore their passions.

Morris: In your opinion, what specifically can new parents do to encourage and nourish a child’s imagination during the pre-K years?

Pyle: Keep them away from electronic displays – computers, tablets, smartphones, and TV. This relationship between the over-use of media and kids was my concentration in grad school at Stanford, and I was lucky enough to have one of the premiere people in the field as an advisor. Kids are excessively exposed to these devices from an incredibly early age. While a small and select number of games can build some skill sets, all the major professional associations from the American Psychological Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics advise from 10 minutes to less than an hour of exposure to any type of activity with computers and video-screens per day, depending on age. These activities can be anathema to creativity and engagement with the physical world, and can crush socialization skills and creativity, critical to later success. Most parents allow their kids to engage via gaming and social media for hours, even at an early age, as it is a convenient way to babysit and they get tired of being nagged for screen time. But don’t give in – read them a story or give them some Mega-Blocks. It will pay dividends for the rest of their lives.

Morris: Long ago, Thomas Edison observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Your response?

Pyle: I am certainly not in Edison’s league (or even his Little-League team), but I’d say that vision without execution is certainly a waste of potential. It doesn’t matter who executes – you can hand off a good idea to another individual or a team if that’s appropriate. But some good ideas are like ice cubes – they don’t last long when left out at room temperature; they need to be protected and utilized quickly. Get engaged, test your idea and run with it if it looks viable.

Morris: I am curious to know what you think of President Reagan’s address on January 28, 1986, after the Challenger tragedy.

Pyle: It was what we needed to hear at that time, a good example of leadership mixed with profound feeling. He was good at that, and it’s a hallmark of effective leaders, regardless of your politics. Remember the earlier question about storytelling? Reagan excelled at that. It’s a key element of the ability to lead and to engage the troops: everything has a story. You just need to find it and tell if effectively. Reagan was a pro storyteller.

Morris: What are the most common misconceptions that people have about space exploration? What in fact is true?

Pyle: I do a lot of radio, and a lot of it is AM with call-ins. Many people want to know why we are “throwing away money in space.” The answer is simple: no money goes into space… hardware goes into space. And that hardware is built here, in the US, with American money being paid to Americans. It’s one of the few things we still do better than anyone, though that margin has slipped to a sliver of what it was. When you spend money on the space program, as opposed to weapons or the latest motion picture extravaganza, you employ some of our best minds: engineers, physicists, chemists, industrial designers, and so forth, on an ennobling adventure. A vibrant space program also engages education and students, from elementary school all the way through grad schools. NASA has wisely spent a lot of money with universities and other schools over the decades, and was largely responsible for building our technological superiority.

Space exploration engages students looking at science and engineering like nothing else, and NASA’s brand, if you will, is still golden. Now they are joined by SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and the other private American companies built by brilliant entrepreneurs. Visit SpaceX and you will see a factory setting with a high-end, in-house restaurant right on the factory floor, packed with twenty-somethings. Same story at JPL, it’s young and vibrant. Space equals not just money well spent, but an investment in America’s future. That’s not hyperbolae, it’s the truth. The numbers back it up.

Morris: In your opinion, will space travel eventually be as common as airline travel is today? Please explain.

Pyle: You know, a lot of people, myself included, thought that when we saw 2001:A Space Odyssey. We saw the Pan-Am Space Clipper flying gracefully up to the space station Hilton. I even sent away a magazine coupon for a reservation on the first Clipper flights. But as you know that has not happened. NASA promised us routine and affordable access to space with the Shuttle, and that didn’t happen then either – not even close. Now Elon Musk is saying something similar about orbital flight, and Richard Branson and others about sub-orbital. If anyone can get it right it’s those guys, the mavericks of the mavericks. But I think it will be some time before space is routine; it’s a tough, unforgiving environment. That said, as recently as 60 years ago the stratosphere would have been off-limits to common passengers, so my hopes are high for citizen space flight.

Morris: In your opinion, of all of the innovations that have developed within the NASA organization over the years, which is most significant? Why?

Pyle: There are a few. The use of high-energy fuels in rocket engines, those on the upper stages of Apollo and the shuttle’s main engines, were a turning point. Less known were the designs for nuclear rockets successfully tested in the 1960’s but never deployed due to lack of funds and political support. Most modern computers that we use in everything from our cars to our phones to our toaster ovens can be traced back to the flight computers on Apollo, with its 36k capacity. The list goes on, but those are a few.

Morris: In your opinion, throughout that history, when did NASA’s “shining moment” occur? Please explain.

Pyle: Not to state the obvious, but July 20th, 1969, the landing of Apollo 11. It’s the furthest that humans have ventured from Earth, and was something that probably should have waited until the 21st century, but was accomplished with 1960’s technology, against all odds. That’s just remarkable. Two others would be the landing of Viking on Mars in July 1974, and when the Voyager 1 spacecraft, still going strong after being launched in 1977, passed out of the solar system in the last couple of years. These are all remarkable accomplishments.

Morris: On Page 238, you observe, “For all its problems and limitations, the space shuttle is sorely missed. It was, for all its limitations, a machine well ahead of its time.”

Pyle: The Shuttle was a grand and inspired vision stuffed into a mean-spirited little budget. I’m not saying that it was cheap, it wasn’t. But when NASA was tasked with a follow-up to Apollo, they came up with a plan that could have worked for (possibly) safer and more routine travel to space, had it been executed as envisioned. But we ended up with a cobbled together, stripped-down version of what was designed, and it left a lot to be desired in terms of performance, safety and cost. All that said, we now know what it’s like to be without the shuttle: we pay $70 million per seat to ride up to the ISS with the Russians in their old moon-ship design, Soyuz. I’m confident that the ticket price covers a lot more than fuel costs. And it’s just three people and no cargo to speak of – the shuttle routinely carried seven astronauts and tons or cargo. Soon we’ll have SpaceX and Boeing flying their capsules, and the SLS will provide heavy lift, but it’s a long gap between 2012 and 2017.

Morris: On Page 248, you observe, “The ISS [International Space Station] is now operating in its ultimate form.” Please explain.

Pyle: I meant that it’s completed and mostly doing what it was intended to do – provide an orbiting base station for research into dozens of things but possibly most importantly, the effects of long-term weightlessness on the human body. Lots of good work is still to be done there, and I think it’s operating at peak form now except for the lack of affordable access for crews and supplies to orbit at the moment. As currently planned, we get to use it for another decade.

Morris: You then observe, “The ISS has not been kept secret, but it has also never received the acclaim and worldwide attention that it deserves.” In your opinion, why not?

Pyle: This is a huge and vexing question for NASA. The public is simply not engaged. A recent study said that something approaching half of Americans don’t really know what the space station does or what it is for. A not much smaller group either had no idea that we have a space station or – incredibly – thought that it had crashed! Some folks I spoke to before the book was published – intelligent people with college degrees and successful professional lives – thought that NASA “had closed.” We have a thousand sources of media and information today, with an ever-diluted set of messages, ever trivialized news and few outstanding authoritative voices. Space is just one more topic that has been marginalized by this evolution of media. One of my personal goals is to change this, and I’m working hard to do so. I wish I could do more.

Morris: You provide the next question on Page 259: “So what is NASA’s next [begin italics] great [end italics] adventure?

Pyle: A lot of people are asking that question, including many within NASA. Officially, it’s the asteroid redirect mission when the new SLS rocket comes online late in the decade. Some good science there, but it’s not getting people excited, and the visual of a couple of astronauts drifting near a 12-20-foot rock that’s been dragged from deep space to lunar orbit by a robot is not very engaging. Some think that we should return to the moon, both to get experience necessary to proceed to Mars, and to mine for fuels and metals that can speed the process along. Others, and I am not one of them, think we should just press directly for Mars. Personally, I’d like to see some time spent back on the moon before we dash off to Mars. That’s a tough journey and a dangerous one, and with our current aversion to risk, one failure could be the end of it. So let’s grow some space-legs while we are back on the moon and move on from there.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Innovation the NASA Way and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which innovative thinking is most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Pyle: Hire me to come give your next keynote… OK, sorry for that commercial break. Again, for the individual I think it’s about the passion, the mission, the commitment. These are all critical. For the leaders and upper management, it’s about creating an environment in which innovation can thrive and prosper. A supportive and tool-rich environment, where the innovative process is adequately funded and supported, and protected from negativity and small thinking. There must be adequate time for the process to occur. From there, wonderful things begin to happen.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Many ask: “Why go into space? What’s the point? Let’s spend the money here on Earth helping people. We went to the moon… what did it get us?” What people who ask questions such as these miss entirely the fact that hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of dollars space money are spent here on Earth, in the United States, building and operating something that we do better than anyone in the world, and paying Americans to do it. Space exploration in all its forms supports education, inspires millions of kids to look to math, physics, engineering and all the rest for careers inside and outside of NASA. There are tangible spinoffs – digital, chip-based computing is one made famous from the Apollo era, and countless others – that emerge from the US space program. Then there are the less tangible rewards of national pride and the fulfilling of our destiny as boundary pushers and explorers. We have done this with grand excellence, and we should continue.

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To read Part 1, please click here.

Rod cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His LinkedIn link

His Amazon link

Huffington Post link

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1 Comment

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