NASA’s Phoenix explorer spacecraft, about to begin digging into the surface of Mars, has a major lesson for innovators. Sometimes you find the best ideas in the junk pile of discarded failed ones. Here is how the New York Times describes the process that led to the Phoenix’s rise, literally, from the junkpile ashes:

In NASA’s “faster, better, cheaper” era, two landers of almost the same design were built: Mars Polar Lander and Mars Surveyor 2001. The Mars Polar Lander disappeared as it tried to land on the planet in December 1999, NASA’s second Mars failure that year. After an investigation showed shortcomings in the spacecraft design, the Mars Surveyor 2001 mission was canceled, and the spacecraft was put in storage. 

In 2002, Peter H. Smith of the University of Arizona proposed taking the mostly built Mars Surveyor 2001 spacecraft, which was to have landed near the equator, and using it to land in the northern arctic plains of Mars. NASA gave the mission, named Phoenix Mars, a green light in 2003.

Let us salute the innovative Peter H. Smith. We all recycle plastic bottles and newspapers. Why not recycle old ideas – especially those that have already been built and paid for? There must be a great many of them just lying around, waiting for the right “Peter H. Smith” to come along and discover them.