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Buzz Aldrin on Innovation, Inventions and Velcro

Photo: Andres Larranaga

Quick quiz: How many objects on your desk have roots at NASA?

Chances are you own a GPS-enabled smartphone, use a computer mouse, drink filtered water and wear comfortable tennis shoes. Each of those technologies can trace their origins back to NASA inventions or NASA funding. (Velcro, it turns out, was not invented at NASA).

Buzz Aldrin—arguably NASA’s most famous astronaut—talked innovation, inventions and space onstage this week at the Avaya Evolutions conference in Silicon Valley.

Evolutions is designed to give Avaya’s partners and customers insights on the direction of the industry and inspiration from thought leaders like Aldrin. The conference is headed to Montreal, the Dominican Republic, Chicago, New York, Argentina and Colombia.

Aldrin’s love of flight came from his father, Edwin, who took him up in an airplane as a boy. He recounted the country’s first steps toward spaceflight and the formation of NASA, amidst the backdrop of the Cold War.

While the past was interesting, Aldrin is more focused on the future: A global, collaborative space program pushing the boundaries of innovation.

“I strongly believe that we’ve got to get the world excited about space again,” Aldrin said. “…to have a pioneering spirit to reach beyond our boundaries and current capabilities.”

From his perspective, today’s children hold the key.

“What we need most is for the next generation to be motivated and seek out new innovations,” he said. “It’s the only way we can move forward. [It’s] the evolution of innovation.”

He’s a big fan of Curiosity, the latest of four rovers that NASA has successfully landed on Mars.

Curiosity’s landing in 2012 was one of NASA’s most widely-watched maneuvers, due to the extreme risk the agency faced on entry into the thin Martian atmosphere. (They nicknamed the landing “Seven Minutes of Terror.”)

Aldrin said he hopes the Mars rover program sparks a renewed interest in space. NASA runs a popular Twitter feed for Curiosity, which is currently approaching 1.5 million followers.

Curiosity’s older sibling, Opportunity, continues to rove the surface and grab headlines—most recently after discovering a mysterious rock on the planet’s surface.

Eventually, Aldrin would like to see humans take a manned trip to Mars.

You might be wondering: How does the space program impact innovation at Avaya?

Onstage, Aldrin argued that much of the technology baked into the foundation of so many technology companies—Avaya included—got its start at NASA. The culture of innovation at NASA has excited several generations of young scientists and inventors. His hope is that it will continue to do so into the future.

Aldrin said successful projects—from the exploration of space down to one-day sprints at the office—cannot happen without collaboration among people. Collaboration drove NASA to successfully land the Apollo 11 mission on the moon in 1969, and continues to drive the agency today.

“Apollo is the story of people doing their best, working together for the common goal,” Aldrin said. “We started with a dream and we can do these kinds of things again. With a united effort and a great team, you too can achieve great things in your business.”

Asher Powell writes and draws for Avaya by day and is a connoisseur of fine pop culture by night. more