NASA’s Crowdsourcing Is Out Of This World.

David_Pearson    October 18, 2015


Company: NASA

Industry: Government

Web References: NASA, NASA Solve, Twitter, Facebook


NASA in the 21st Century

2015 is a very big year for NASA.  Between missions to Mars, images from Pluto, landing probes on comets and seemingly daily breakthroughs in the search for extraterrestrial life – it is an exciting time to be a science and space exploration fan.

Although NASA is primarily known for it’s space exploration efforts, their mission statement is more grounded than you might imagine.

From NASA’s 2014 Strategic Plan:

Mission Statement:

Drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality and stewardship of Earth.

Even with the staggering $17.6 billion dollar budget from the U.S Government, NASA understands that innovation thrives in an open environment.

Also from the Strategic Plan, NASA’s overarching approach includes the following:

Finding new ways to do business:

Recognizing the value of the American public as a strategic partner in addressing some of the country’s most pressing challenges, NASA relies on the expertise, ingenuity, and creativity of the American public by enabling, accelerating, and scaling the use of open innovation methods including prizes, challenges, crowdsourcing, and citizen science across NASA.


What are the benefits of crowdsourcing innovation?

In a traditional corporate model, the business relies on hiring or contracting “experts” for innovation.  This relies on the right person, being in the right position at the right time and the structure in place where they have the authority and support for their ideas to be heard.

As Vivek Wadhwa, Fellow at Stanford Law School wrote for the Wall Street Journal:

Corporations used to rely heavily on industry analysts, management consultants and in-house gurus for advice on business strategy and competitiveness. These experts understood the products, markets and industry trends. They also got paid big bucks.

Crowdsourcing solves many problems.  Companies do not need to rely on hiring the right person, they control the timing and feedback mechanism and if successful may have a multitude of ideas to choose from, or merge together.

Again from the Wall Street Journal:

Crowdsourcing harnesses the creative and competitive spirit of people all over the world, enabling them to solve big problems as well as small ones.


How can this be done?

Let’s look at NASA and see how it can apply to your organization.How-this-works-transbkgrndNASA created branding called SOLVE that uses their websiteFacebook and Twitter to issue challenges to academics, enthusiasts and the scientific community.  This brand consolidates crowdsourcing efforts across their organization.


Each challenge is treated as both a promotional opportunity in addition to a call for innovation.

NASA builds hype and encourages their followers to spread the news through a very active Twitter presence as well as Facebook and live events.

Individuals and groups are encouraged to submit ideas with very clear and specific practical goals.

When reached for comment regarding SOLVE’s goals; Lynn Buquo, NASA’s program executive for Prizes and Challenges had this to say:

“NASA is expanding its use of crowd sourcing into many areas of the agency to help solve different kinds of problems. These activities range from NASA’s Centennial Challenges such as the Cube Quest and 3D Printed Habitat challenges, the Asteroid Data Hunter and Mars Balance Mass challenges run by the NASA Tournament Lab, and the award-winning Future Engineers K-12 challenges, to NASA’s now annual international Space Apps challenge and a burgeoning Citizen Science focus. SOLVE is the one-stop shop that allows the public an easy way to determine how they can best engage in personally contributing to the future of NASA.”

Another recent NASA crowdsourcing challenge was to design a 3D printable container that can be used in zero-gravity to help astronauts on the International Space Station.

Says Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s In-Space Manufacturing Project Manager,

“The simplest tasks on Earth can be quite challenging, and even dangerous, in space. Being able to 3-D print technical parts, as well as the lifestyle items that we use every day will not only help enable deep space travel, but can make the trip more pleasant for astronauts.”

This challenge was aimed at students aged 8 through 19, but generated a lot of practical, great ideas that can be immediately implemented.


Emily Takara from Cupertino, California, designed the winning container from the Junior Group, ages 5-12

Two of the  winning entries were “Clipcatch” which will allow astronauts to clip their nails safely in zero-gravity and “Flower Tea Cage“, which uses the surface tension of liquids in a microgravity environment to allow astronauts to make tea.

In addition to the value of the entries, announcing winners and prizes can be used as a promotional and marketing win for your organization and provides “good news” stories that you can share on Social Media.  Even entries that do not win may see an increased investment in your company as a result of feeling a part of the process.


What can you learn from this?

Admittedly, not every company has the consumer enthusiasm and budget of NASA, but they should be considered as a great “best scenario” case study when planning your own crowdsourcing initiatives.

Let’s review their approach:

Commit to the plan:  NASA included crowdsourcing directly in their Strategic Plan.  This commitment is necessary as often it is better to do nothing on social media, than take half-measures that degrade confidence in your brand.

Unique Branding: NASA has created a unique brand for their crowdsourcing, “NASA SOLVE”.  This brand is used to consolidate initiatives across multiple branches of their organization.

Active Social Media:  NASA is very active on social media platforms, especially Twitter where they routinely produce multiple posts and retweets per day.

Prizes and Hype: By recognizing the winners on Social Media and creating hype around the selections, NASA creates stories to keep them in the news and fosters interest in future challenges.


Still not convinced?

Another interesting case study is explored in the Digital & Social Media Leadership Forum podcast.  This interview with Steve Pollock of Nestle UK provides details about how Nestle UK approached crowdsourcing for a marketing initiative.


Submitted By: David Pearson

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