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NASA research finds way into IT, consumer products

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

November 17, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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.



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