The US space program should look to collaboration and open systems to drive the next wave of human exploration and innovation, Google chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt said on Thursday.
"Assume that you don't have all the answers," Schmidt said during a speech celebrating the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) 50th anniversary. "I can assure you that we don't."
Schmidt used his speech in Washington, DC to promote the benefits of open architectures and collaboration. He talked about the importance of collaboration between organizations, such as the images from NASA and private satellite providers Google has used to create Google Earth, but also of the benefit to NASA and other government agencies of seeking ideas from the public.
It's amazing what applications people find for Google Earth, Schmidt said. Archeologists are using the desktop maps to find ancient Celtic settlements, he said.
"We don't anticipate all this," he said. "We just put the information out there, and people use it."
Schmidt praised programs such as NASA's Centennial Challenge, which awards cash prizes to inventors that come up with solutions to the agency's needs. Last year, NASA awarded $200,000 to Peter Horner, an unemployed engineer from Maine, who created a new space glove using a common rubber glove.
Google has sponsored the X Prize Foundation, an organization that runs similar competitions, with an award of up to $30 million for a group that can design and launch a lunar lander with a robotic explorer on board. In many cases, the teams competing for the prize in these types of competitions spend more than the total prize money, but the public awards spur competition, Schmidt said.
"Why would we do this?" Schmidt said. "Because it's fun."
Government agencies can't have a totally open-development model, Schmidt said. NASA can't completely adopt the Google "shift and iterate" model of launching a lot of projects, knowing many of them will fail, because the agency has launch targets it has to meet, he said
But NASA can learn from open-software development and projects like Linux and MySQL, where collaboration is necessary. And the agency can learn about the value of flexibility from companies like Google, he said.
"The best way to be lucky is to create more luck," he said. "And the best way to create more luck is to create more at bats."
One audience member asked Schmidt where the next wave of scientific advances would come. Schmidt said the IT sector has made tremendous strides in the last 30 years. If storage advances continue at their current pace an iPod-like device will be able to hold 85 years of video by the year 2019, he said.
"You couldn't watch it all," he said. "You'd be dead."
But the next breakthroughs should come in the areas of biology and biotechnology, Schmidt predicted. The biotech industry still needs more computing power for many breakthroughs to occur, he said.