Over the (very brief) July 4th holiday, I had a chance to catch up some innovation-related reading. This cover story in the current New York Times Magazine, for example, explains how amateurs are contributing to the future of space innovation. Thanks to the creation of a wide range of design contests sponsored by NASA, the U.S. space program has received a raft of new ideas to solve problems related to space travel, ranging from the creation of space gloves to the harder task of creating a space elevator. Enticed by the prospect of a $200,000 prize, for example, an out-of-work innovator in Maine decided to develop a state-of-the-art space glove while working in his garage and applying a little Yankee ingenuity:
"With NASA sponsoring seven design contests for everything from a new lunar lander to a new space glove, anybody with a home-brewed invention could enter. [Peter] Homer’s previous jobs included some gigs in the aerospace industry as well as work sewing boat sails. So, Homer told me not long ago, he ruled out building a flying spacecraft but decided that “the glove contest represented something of the scale I could achieve working out of my home by myself.” He’d always been a garage tinkerer, he said, and being unemployed, he also wanted to prove to his 14-year-old son “that you can do anything if you put your mind to it.” Oh, he added offhandedly, “the money is a motivator, too.” At stake was a prize — presented with one of those giant cardboard checks — for $200,000.
Last spring, Homer seized his family’s dining room, occupied his garage and set out to build a better space glove for NASA. It doesn’t sound like the most glamorous task in the larger effort of conquering the final frontier, or maybe even that big of a problem. But the space glove is fraught with little tribulations that, like a pebble in a shoe, can drive a space program half crazy. Because the air inside a spacesuit is highly pressurized, each time an astronaut flexes a muscle, he has to overcome the suit’s resistance. It’s actual work. And when it comes to the highly articulated precision that is the human hand, this means that the fine sinews are quickly exhausted and the fingers brutalized by the effort.
As ever-more sophisticated tools of production move into the hands of average citizens, it's likely that we will see more of this kind of innovative thinking emerging at the fringes of industries. For more on the rise of amateur innovation, it might be interesting to check out An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths from Glenn Reynolds (aka Instapundit).
[image: New York Times]