NASA research powers many IT products

Many systems in use today have their origins at the space agency

Aware of a history of heart disease in his family, Gary F Thompson saw his doctor for a checkup before he ran a Los Angeles marathon in the mid-1990s.

His doctor gave him the go-ahead to run the race, but Thompson, who had been an active athlete his whole life, had a heart attack at mile 20. The attack damaged 48% of his heart muscle.

Thompson says the devices used to test his heart lacked the ability to determine the true risk he faced in running the marathon.

After recovering from the trauma, Thompson created a company that used technology developed by the NASA to create a device that can more accurately judge heart health.

That's not the only case of NASA research being commercialised: technology developed by NASA scientists routinely makes its way into products developed in the robotics, computer hardware and software, nanotechnology, aeronautics, transportation and health care industries.

Scott Hubbard, who worked at NASA for 20 years before joining Stanford University, where he is a professor in the aeronautics and astronautics department, says NASA research has had a significant impact on the IT industry over the past 40-plus years.

"The integrated circuit and [the emergence of] Silicon Valley were very closely linked with NASA," Hubbard says. For example, he notes that Silicon Graphicsgot off the ground with the help of investments from NASA.

Hubbard also points out that NASA engineers have worked "hand-in-hand" with businesses and universities to help develop a variety of technologies, including microelectromechanical systems, supercomputers and microcomputers, software and microprocessors.

Overall, Hubbard added, $7 or $8 in goods and services are produced for every $1 that the US government invests in NASA.

The benefits of NASA research are clear, even without the embellishment of myths. For example, the space agency did not invent the powdered drink Tang, and its engineers did not develop the microwave oven.

After suffering the heart attack, Thompson founded Medical Technologies International and licensed NASA's Video Imaging Communication and Retrieval software for use as the centerpiece of a new cardiac imaging system.

The software had been developed just a few years earlier by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, to process images from space missions such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Voyager spacecraft.

The NASA software is a key piece of Medical Technologies' ArterioVision medical device, which is designed to help doctors detect hardening of the arteries before it can cause a heart attack or stroke.

The technology is now used at several major hospitals, including the University of Chicago Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

"Private industry has developed a lot of great things, but what comes out of our space programme is a cut above what private industry could do," Thompson says. "Private industry wouldn't be as patient as NASA is in developing technology. [Industry] has Wall Street demands and stockholders, so it's hard to put the time and money into something that won't have a quick return on investment."

And NASA can attract the best and brightest scientists and engineers by offering them the chance to, say, remotely repair computer systems on spacecraft orbiting the Earth or work on projects such as building rovers to traverse and study Mars.

Technologies invented at the space agency are likely to make their way into IT and consumer products because of congressional requirements set more than 40 years ago that require NASA to keep track of how its inventions are used outside of government.

In 1976, NASA launched its annual Spinoff publication, which reports on the use of NASA technologies in the private sector.

"We explore the universe to expand human knowledge," says Daniel Lockney, editor of Spinoff . "But in addition to knowing more about black holes, we have these secondary benefits."

For example, NASA's efforts to find a highly nutritional food crop that could be grown on manned missions in space led to the discovery of a strain of algae that contains the same nutrients as those found in human breast milk. Martek Biosciences took advantage of that research to develop nutrients that are now added to more than 90% of infant formula products, Lockney says.

Research by NASA scientists can also be linked to the development of freeze-dried food, scratch-resistant sunglasses, bicycle helmets, lithium polymer batteries and other consumer products.

In addition, NASA-developed laser technology is used in photo scanning and fingerprinting systems and in the development of artificial intelligence technologies. NASA also played a key role in developing the integrated circuit, which fueled the birth of Silicon Valley and firms such as Intel and AMD.

Even a spray developed at the Kennedy Space Centre to prevent saltwater from corroding its concrete buildings along the Florida coastline was used by scientists at Surtreat International to create commercial products that protect buildings, bridges and roadways, says Lockney.

"I don't think people realize that a lot of technologies that we use in our everyday lives have been developed around or for spaceflight," says Jim McGregor, an analyst at research firm In-Stat.

"NASA really has developed some of the most critical technologies that have changed our lives. Their research leads to future spaceflight, but also technology that benefits the US and several industries," McGregor says.

In 2006, Flight Explorer licensed NASA's Future Air Traffic Management Concepts Evaluation Tool, which was developed at NASA's Ames Research Centre, to use in its aircraft-tracking and communications systems.

Chris Zanardi, director of solutions management for Sabre Flight Explorer, says the technology at one time was used by 85% of US airlines, but it has since been replaced by a simpler tool that the company developed internally. The NASA software worked well, he said, but required significant training of clients — more than his company could feasibly provide.

"It's one of those things where it's not paste and overlay. It required some training, and everybody has resource constraints," says Zanardi.

Nonetheless, he says that Flight Explorer would be eager to use another NASA technology because the agency is "at the forefront of providing R&D [for] air traffic management tools. We want to partner with [entities] like NASA that help us help our customers."

American Science and Engineering says its work for NASA in the 1960s and 1970s created the basis of its business today.

Rich Mastronardi, vice president of business development at AS&E, says the company was founded in 1958 to develop scientific instruments and applications for NASA. Its first team of scientists were pioneers in the field of x-ray astronomy, which is the study of celestial bodies through the x-rays they emit.

NASA has since licensed the technology to a variety of vendors that have used it to create digital x-ray systems for hospitals, advanced weather-prediction technology, and NASA's orbiting Chandra x-ray Observatory Centre for x-ray astronomy.

AS&E has taken advantage of this research to build security x-ray systems that are used at ports, borders and military facilities to detect threats such as explosives.

"I think that a lot of the early work that was funded by the government really did break barriers and opened up opportunities for all kinds of products," says Mastronardi.

"If it was left to commercial ventures, it would be a much more shortsighted approach to technology. If you're a company, you need to have a return on investment, and it reduces your ability to invest in far-reaching technologies that may not have an impact for years", he says.

Mastronardi notes that the company's focused research has led to a diverse range of applications decades later. Without NASA research, AS&E "probably wouldn't exist or [it would] certainly be a different company," he says. "It gave us the platform to develop all kinds of applications for X-rays."

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