NASA Research Finds Way Into IT, Consumer Products

Fifty years of technology helped to create Silicon Valley and improve health care.

Aware of a history of heart disease in his family, then-50-year-old 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 said that 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 National Aeronautics and Space Administration to create a device that can more accurately judge heart health.

Some may say that NASA is an odd place to find a way to build better cardiac care equipment, but the idea isn't really that far-fetched.

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 the faculty at Stanford University, where he is a professor in the aeronautics and astronautics department, said that 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 said. For example, he noted that hardware pioneer Silicon Graphics Inc. got off the ground with the help of investments from NASA.

Hubbard also pointed 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 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 beverage Tang, and its engineers did not develop the microwave oven.

After suffering the heart attack, Thompson founded Medical Technologies International Inc. 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, Calif., to process images from space missions such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Voyager spacecraft.

The NASA software is a key piece of Palm Desert, Calif.-based 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, Thompson said.

"Private industry has developed a lot of great things, but what comes out of our space program is a cut above what private industry could do," said Thompson. "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." [However, some observers say that even the government is looking for a quick ROI on its R&D. See page 36.]

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 at 17,500 mph or work on projects like 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," said Daniel Lockney, editor of Spinoff. "But in addition to knowing more about black holes, we have these secondary benefits."

For instance, 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 Corp. in Columbia, Md., took advantage of that research to develop nutrients that are now added to more than 90% of infant formula products, Lockney said.

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 Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

Even a spray developed at the Kennedy Space Center to prevent saltwater from corroding its concrete buildings along the Florida coastline was used by scientists at Surtreat International LLC to create commercial products that protect buildings, bridges and roadways, said 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," said Jim McGregor, an analyst at In-Stat in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"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 U.S. and several industries," McGregor added.

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

Chris Zanardi, director of solutions management for Sabre Flight Explorer, said the technology at one time was used by 85% of U.S. airlines, but it has since been replaced by a simpler tool that the McLean Va.-based 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," said Zanardi.

Nonetheless, he said 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 Inc. said 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, explained that the company was founded in 1958 to develop scientific instruments and applications for NASA. The company's 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 Center 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," said 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 added.

Mastronardi noted 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 added. "It gave us the platform to develop all kinds of applications for X-rays."

This version of the story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition.

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