Cheryl Gramling Credit: NASA
Leadership Highlight, Profile 

Leadership Highlight, Cheryl Gramling

October 4, 2016

How would you define Innovation?

There are two forms of innovation: one is interpreting or applying an existing system in a different manner; the other is creating a new concept, tool, or system.

How have you learned to be innovative throughout your career?

I’m a practical person, so, for me, innovation comes from the need for a practical (and preferably economical) application.  When designing trajectories for restricted three-body environments, like the multiple double-lunar swingbys for WIND and GEOTAIL, I wanted to visualize the resultant trajectories to get a more intuitive sense for how design inputs affected the resultant trajectory.

After explaining the problem and a solution path to Branch management up the chain to HQ, I was given funding to develop a trajectory targeting and visualization tool, SWINGBY. SWINGBY then became the foundation for the commercial tool STK/Astrogator. Similarly,  it seemed obvious that orbit estimation could be performed onboard spacecraft, and remove that chore and the associated human-intensive operations from the ground. 

After defining a step-wise approach to proving the technology and pursuing flight demonstrations for each step, the technology was ready to support an operational mission. It took a lot of time to achieve the operational level, and there was a lot of frustration along the way; at one point, we encountered a problem, but  did not have enough information readily available to troubleshoot and detect the source of the problem.

In the end, the frustrations paid off, because the final system was more robust, and included backups to the prime system to provide gracefully degradation, if needed. Innovation came from identifying a need for an alternative method, then convincing others that pursuing the vision would reap benefits.  I learned  that oftentimes proving an innovation takes patience.

What about innovation at NASA inspires you?

In my opinion, NASA’s mission is about innovation. If NASA doesn’t pursue technologies and advance the state of the art, who will? NASA is the lead, literally, for unexplored environs; we all know that. This means NASA has to figure out how to achieve comprehensive, safe, low-risk, and cost-effective operations to reach and explore these new environs. This litany of constraints pushes us to the pinnacle of innovative thought.  And how cool is it when the innovations from your team come to fruition as part of a successful mission? Pretty cool!

How would you teach innovation to a young student?**

It’s the old adage “there is no stupid question.” If you think there is a need – something missing, some way to do things better – communicate your thoughts. Don’t just say “there’s a problem”! You also need to come up with one — or twenty — ways to potentially solve the problem. Then, lay out a path to pursue the most likely solution(s), and get to work. Ensure you integrate the lessons learned from each development step to bring about a desirable end-product. And, be patient; these things take time.