Science Talk

The Spirit of Innovation: From High School to the Moon

Nancy Conrad, chair of the Conrad Foundation, talks about the Spirit of Innovation competition for high school students, and about her late husband, Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon

Nancy Conrad, chair of the Conrad Foundation, talks about the Spirit of Innovation competition for high school students, and about her late husband, Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon.

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome to Science Talk, the more of less weekly podcast of Scientific American, posted on February 17th, 2011. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast:

Conrad:          We had fun. I mean, if you listen to the voice tapes and everything else, you'll hear Pete giggling, singing on the moon.

Steve:          Yeah, she said "moon." That's Nancy Conrad, widow of astronaut Pete Conrad, talking about some of Pete's stories about being on the moon. We'll hear those as well as about Nancy's current mission, which is to stimulate an interest in science and technology among high school students with the Spirit of Innovation Awards through her San Francisco–based Conrad Foundation. We spoke by phone.

Steve:          Tell us about the Spirit of Innovation Awards. How did they come to be? How did you get involved? And what's the purpose behind them?

Conrad:          The awards are there to encourage innovation, entrepreneurship and education for teens and young high school students. And it's really asking students to take risks and get out there and unleash their scientific creativity and solve real-world problems. We've seen, in the three years that we've done this exam, unbelievable ideas coming out of these young minds; so much so that some of the teams that we take in to patent and/or  help get them to the commercial marketplace. This is what we call "where science gets real". We based all of this on the legacy of my late husband, who was expelled from school in the eleventh grade because he couldn't read or spell. It was a day when dyslexia just wasn't something that educators recognized. And fortunately for Pete, his mom took him to a little school in upstate New York, Darrow School, which is still alive and well and helping students with so-called problems. The headmaster at Darrow saw something really special in Pete and he took him under his wings, and my husband went on to get a scholarship to Princeton, compliments of the Navy and Princeton. He went in as an NROTC scholar, and he became an aeronautical engineer, which when I later wrote his book, Rocket Man I figured that one out, because you don't have to read or spell much to be an aeronautical engineer. Pete went on to become part of the America's space program. He flew four flights in space, Gemini 5, Gemini 11, Apollo 12. He was the third man to walk on the moon. And he was awarded a Congressional Space Medal of Honor for rescuing Skylab, our first space station. And then Pete went on to create companies working on the commercialization of spaceflight, much like what Richard Branson is doing today, Pete was doing in the early '90s. And unfortunately he was killed in an accident in 1999. So all of this happened for Pete because an educator took this young man under his wings, and he got a moon shot. So we decided we would take young students under our wing and give them their moon shot. We really followed Pete's path of innovation, which is how he got to the moon; education which is how he got his moon shot; and entrepreneurship which is who he is and who he was. And so those are the three waves of this tool that we offer to our students to become part of the innovative workforce for the 21st century. I was interested to just read some quotes from President Obama's Startup America event the other day, and he mentioned these young minds; it's a quote in which he says that "in their willingness to take a risk on a bold idea, we can see the future, we can see how America will compete and win the 21st-century global economy." And that's really precisely what we're trying to do, we are trying to grow an innovative workforce for the 21st century; students with the ability to do project-based multidisciplinary learning, understand design learning skill sets and really understand aspirational learning. We've, kind of, put in A in STEM, so we can kind of call it STEAM, because these students are invited to aspire and invited to achieve; so that's our little A in STEAM. It's really been an unbelievable opportunity, I am an educator, I am a teacher; albeit I didn't teach science, I was an English teacher. So I've really worked in this really my whole life. When Pete was alive, I had an astronaut licensing company, so I quote owned the rights to 19 astronauts. And we made educational products for students and kids, comic books, action figures, popup books, all sorts of things. And so it was a natural transition for me to evolve into this effort going forward after Pete's death. So that's what we do—we've got students with patents, they've invited to be seated with Michelle Obama at the State of the Union, they've been to the White House, one of our teams was archived into the Kennedy Library, they've been interviewed by the BBC, profiled in Popular Science magazine, MTV. I mean, they're turning into science rock stars, and that's exactly what this country is going to need to pull us up into the 21st century and to implement 21st-century learning skills and 21st-century education into our education program; so that in fact our education system can get its own moon shot by evolving into a next generation of ways to teach these young minds.

Steve:          And why did you decide to concentrate on high school students rather than, say, junior high or college?

Conrad:          Right. Well we, sort of, based our business model on the moon shot which, you know, when you look at what we did was that it fit on the back of a match book: go to the moon by the end of the decade. Now Pete always said the more important part was we returned safely to Earth…

Steve:          Right.

Conrad:          Our back of the match book is to create an innovative workforce for the 21st century. Well we went to the moon incrementally, and so we're doing this effort incrementally. We started in high school—that's the, sort of, the cup of the ocean we chose to boil—for a couple of reasons. It's the immediate pipeline into college and into industry, and so it was the closest place that we could bring our program to the attention of young high schoolers. And we are now doing some pilots in middle schools and eventually we will be doing a K-12 effort but we had to decide which cup of the ocean and that was the cup of the ocean we chose to boil.

Steve:          You mentioned some of the previous projects; can you just discuss a couple of them briefly to give people an idea of what the kids come up with?

Conrad:          Sure. One of our teams came up with a project that would harvest the energy from the heat vents in the deep ocean, through a generator that they designed, to create low cost electricity; that project got the attention of Jon Wellinghoff, who is the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; and that team is, now currently has two patents and they are in development with their process. We've given them some coaches to work with, a science coach and a business coach, to help them continue developing their product idea. We brought another team into our portal, which is where these students get patents, and that team has created a way to take humidity out of the air and convert it into potable water. Some of the teams don't need patents. We have a team of young food scientists who've been working on a project that created a nutrition bar, so food science for microgravity in this particular instance—we are going to be doing another nutrition challenge going forward, but those students don't need a patent; but we are bringing them into our portal and we haven't told them yet, so you're getting a scoop here—and they have really become young entrepreneurs. They are packaging their product idea. The business plan there is to create a way for schools to do fundraisers using this particular product idea and to really drive STEM education within the schools, being facilitated through this product. Some kids don't win; we've had a solar oven that was created it was awesome, it didn't win and those kids are continuing to develop their product idea and working on a next generation of it, and we're connecting them to a company that actually manufactures prototypes and takes them into the market place, so….

Steve:          That's a really important point, I mean, just because you don't win doesn't mean…

Conrad:          You don't win.

Steve:          Right exactly.

Conrad:          You do win.

Steve:          I mean…

Conrad:          I mean just getting to our innovation summit at NASA in the end of April where we bring our finalists; and between the time that they have been announced as the finalists and they come to the summit, we want them to look really good when they show up, so they get coaches, they get a science coach, a presentation coach and a marketing coach. So that when they get there to do their presentation in real time in front of industry leaders and venture capitalists and academics, real rocket scientists, all the people that come share this event with us, they look really good. And by the way they better have fun at this thing, because that's part of the whole thing as well. I mean this has taken science and technology, engineering and math, and really integrated it into an education where it's real, it's fun, it's important, it drives impact, and it really is a moon shot for these kids. They win just getting there. And we're going to have what we call a wildcard this year. We decided that we would create a way for students who didn't get into the finals to actually get hosted by us to come to our finals. So we're going to be launching a wild card competition; so we will pick, sort of, a sweepstakes where one of the teams will get to come to the summit even though they didn't make it into the finals.

Steve:          And we should say there are three general categories that teams can compete in.

Conrad:          This year we've did aerospace exploration, we did energy, and we did cyber security. We are going to bring 27 teams of students out to NASA-Ames the 28th of April to the 1st of May. We really are growing a community of young innovators. I mean, these students stay with us. The kids who have won before come back to our summit, and they work with the new students that have come on board. We have a whole group now and we are very young. We look old for our age but we're very young. This is our third innovation summit, and we bring really world-level people like Vint Cerf is going to come and do a fireside chat with these young students. That's awesome when kids can sit and talk to a guy like Vint Cerf. We've had, you know Tom Cellucci, is coming; he's the head of commercialization for the Department of Homeland Security. We've had guys like Steve Jurvetson come. And many, many entrepreneurs come to this event, because we're growing the next generation of them, and so it's a tremendous pay-it-forward for industry leaders and for entrepreneurs and for academics to come and work with this next generation. I mean, we've got to grow these kids.

Steve:          And people around the country will have an opportunity to vote themselves on the finalists.

Conrad:          Yeah, we do this thing called the People's Choice Awards. It's sort of Revenge of the Nerds meets American idol. And these kids crowd-source their product ideas; they do a video of their team and their product idea and they put it up on the Web, they blog with each other, and they generate interest in their product idea in their communities and across the country. And so people get their vote for their product ideas. Now last year's team that won that particular award got a flight in zero gravity, so it's very cool and the kids get very excited about it. So it's real chance for the whole country to take a look at what these young new innovators are doing.

Steve:          I wanted to ask a question; when I've had the opportunity because of my line of work to meet two of the men who've walked on the moon, and one of the things I find fascinating and perhaps Pete discussed this with you, is what the actual experience of being there was like in ways that they could not have anticipated.

Conrad:          Right. I think there are a couple of things that Pete shared with me. When he flew Gemini 5, and I mean it really was two guys in a tin can for eight days, and he said if Al Bean had told him one more day, he would have been the first space statistic. And it was really lonely. Gemini 11 was a fast turn-around; he was with his good buddy Dick Gordon. And Dick went on to fly to the moon with Pete, and they took an all-Navy crew to the moon; Al Bean flew the lunar landing module. And so I think, you know, it was a long trip, and Pete was fully expecting to be lonely again. And you know when he went to the moon, Pete just liked to fly. He didn't care where it went, and if you put a wings on a box of cereal he'd fly that. He was just happy to fly, and when he got to the moon and he had now went onto the surface of the moon. First of all they had done a pinpoint landing on the lunar surface because they should probably know….

Steve:          Right….

Conrad:          Yeah, Apollo was a little off course.

Steve:          In comparison to the, right, right…

Conrad:          So he was just happy as a clam to see that they had actually accomplished a pinpoint landing, which is incredibly difficult, and given what they had to navigate from, which was basically paper-mâche models of the lunar surface from photos that had been sent back, it was outstanding and amazing. So he was just all  happy, happy that they accomplished the pinpoint landing and they had science to do on the lunar surface. So they setup an ALSEP, which was Apollo Lunar Experiment Package, magnetometers and all sorts of things; and so he was very engaged in the science that they were performing on the moon. And it's a full-grade story and you ought to check out our comic book, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 12, it was actually, it's tremendous a source of research on the flight of Apollo 12. But the bottom line was, he wasn't lonely at all. He had a blast. He had his two best friends with him, they did a pinpoint landing. They accomplished everything they wanted to do with the exception of one small thing. They had rigged a system to take a picture of themselves on the moon, and they set up this whole tripod and all this stuff so that they could send back to Houston a picture of both Al and Pete on the moon. And they figured NASA would spend the rest of the life scratching its head trying to figure out how that happened, because, as you know, there were only two men walking on the moon together.

Steve:          Who took the picture? Right.

Conrad:          Yeah, exactly, and towards the end of their mission you could, all those the recordings and everything, their heart rates were going crazy because they couldn't find the little tripod that they had stowed away. And of course, it showed up later in the rock box. They had fun. I mean if you listen to the voice tapes and everything else you'll hear Pete giggling and singing on the moon; and of course his first words were hysterical. He had had a bet with someone, a journalist, an Italian journalist who thought that Neil's words were created by the government, and Pete said absolutely not. So he bet her 500 bucks that he would say whatever was that they made up and when he said it she would pay him 500 bucks. And so he said it, and what he said was, "That may have been a small one for Neil, but it was a big one for a little guy like me." Because Pete was the smallest guy in the astronaut corp. So of course, he came back from the moon and went to collect the 500 bucks and she never paid up.

Steve:          Wow…

Conrad:          And unfortunately she is deceased now too; and at one point I was going to calculate what it was worth today but, oh well it doesn't matter. But the bottom line was he had fun and he wasn't lonely. And the loneliness was what he was most fearful of and it just wasn't that at all, he really had a blast. And these were three best friends who went to the moon together, and they remained best friends for life.

Steve:          That's a great story. Well, thanks very much for talking to us, and obviously we wish you good luck with this project not just for its own sake, but for all our sakes.

Conrad:          Oh! Absolutely. This is America's education moon shot, so to speak. It really is.

Steve:          For more info about the Spirit of Innovation competition and the finalists you can vote for, go to I will be right back after this word from Kerri Smith at the Nature podcast.

Kerri Smith: This week we get hot under the collar about human evolution; find out if climate change is causing more extreme weather; and hear from the astronauts pretending to go to Mars.

Steve:          You can find the Nature podcast on iTunes and at That's it for this episode, get your science news at where you can check out a package of articles on the possible benefits of daydreaming. Uh, what was that? Follow us on Twitter where you'll get a tweet about each new article posted to our Web site. Our Twitter handle is @sciam. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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