Former NASA chief explains why businesses can’t afford to play it safe

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In the 1960s, I graduated college and went right to NASA as a research scientist, doing some graduate work along the way. While I was there, America was using chemical rockets to go to the moon with Apollo. I was performing research on a project using ion and nuclear power to try and launch a mission  to take eight astronauts to Mars.  

After I left NASA, I went to the TRW Space and Technology Group and became interested in the idea that we could broadcast TV commercially from space. In 1976, after six years of research to develop a space-qualified Ku band high power transponder, NASA successfully launched the communication technology satellite, which established the feasibility of space-based TV broadcast. Our transponder was a key part of the success. It was a huge amount of work and a long ball. We put the first color TV patterns through that system, and we did the first experiments in telemedicine. It seemed like science fiction at the time. 

When I became the head of NASA in 1992, I found it was dominated by geophysicists, physicists and engineers. NASA is more than building space shuttles and space stations and sending humans into space. NASA is about fundamental innovation and developing wild and crazy technologies, along with understanding the science of the universe we live in. I was very frustrated by the fact that there were a limited number of those studying the biological sciences. So we started holding seminars (called the Administrator’s Lectures on Biology) and brought in some of the leading biologists in their field. I wanted people to think about scientific understanding in the broadest sense. 

I have always been involved in things that have been transformational; it’s in my very DNA. I’m not an incrementalist and don’t do routine things. 

I am worried about the future of our country. This is why I went to NASA; I wanted people to see NASA try and fail and then try and succeed. One of the biggest lessons I tried to help the American people understand is you don’t succeed without failure. 

America was founded by risk-takers. America gathers people from around the world who want to make it better for their families. The reason we’ve succeeded in America is we’ve never been afraid of failure. What I worry about is the fear of failure that can drive us to mediocrity. 

Over the past four decades, there has been a grade inflation of one whole point. I think the average grades were Cs when I went to college; they’re now Bs – but it’s not because people got smarter. We can’t give guarantees and insulate people from failure. People and companies need to know that they have to suffer failures along the way, and they shouldn’t be afraid of it. The mantra of “faster, better, cheaper” says you have to do many more things with diversity in the different projects you undertake and plan on a minimum of one or two failures out of 10. 

If you play it safe, you’ll never be embarrassed. And I’ve had blazing failures in my career where I didn’t want to walk out the door because I was so embarrassed. But you can’t play it safe, because then you can’t build the stunning successes that move the world forward. I’m worried that, for the most part, corporate America is playing it too conservative, and we’re squandering the brilliance of what is our country. 

I’ve said before that I don’t want to be on the football field – I want to define where the football field is going to be. In order to live in this global economy, we can’t pull in; we have to reach out. I believe it’s important to be part of this great American experiment and do things with our business resources to help the country. And businesses can’t let up. Sometimes they’ll fail, but in the process of failing, they’ll drive the future. You shouldn’t be afraid to fail – you can always start again. 

For Dan’s advice to entrepreneurs and startups regarding launching a company, failing fast, operating in stealth and getting investors, read “Why KnuEdge took the long route in artificial intelligence instead of the startup fail-fast approach. 

Dan Goldin is the founder and CEO of KnuEdge. Prior to founding KnuEdge, Dan was the longest-tenured NASA chief, serving across three presidential administrations. At NASA, he guided the redesign and launched the International Space Station, initiated bold robotic exploration of Mars, formed the Astrobiology Institute to better understand the origin, evolution and destiny of life in the universe, and without incident put a record number of people into space. 







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