Cliff Jolly, President of the Alternative Asset Development Group, called technology transfer—the sharing by NASA of technology that can be used by private companies to develop useful products—“the bread and butter of NASA’s contribution to society. He’s worried that the United States is not in an economic cycle but, rather, what he calls “a secular economic trend” in which job losses aren’t being recovered at the rate one would expect in a regular cycle. He argues that “the velocity of money”—how many times a unit of money changes hands over a given period of time, which indicates how often it can be taxed—is at a fifty-year low.
He’s especially concerned because the economic crisis is global, and our nation’s economy is intertwined with the global economy more than ever before. “We’re in uncharted waters,” Jolly said. “I am very concerned that we have papered over these problems.” And by papered over, he means printed lots of money to get out of this economic crisis.
He’s a businessman through and through, and Space Tech Expo is very much about the business of space travel. Jolly sees a way out of the economic crisis: small- and medium-business development and more intelligent cities. And NASA can help accomplish both.
David Leetsma spoke for NASA. He’s a three-time shuttle astronaut and works at Johnson Space Center to foster technology transfer from NASA to private industry. NASA has developed a lot of great stuff in the process of going to the Moon and spending the last three decades doing orbital spaceflight, and it’s Leetsma’s job to figure out how to get some of that good stuff into development by private companies so that products find their ways to regular people in the United States and beyond.
Sometimes, NASA studies the existing market and publicizes a technology that seems as if it might be useful and valuable. For instance, NASA, with the help of GM, developed Robonaut for the International Space Station and, in the process, made a terrific robotic glove. Now, the Veterans Administration sees that a robotic limb could be of great benefit to soldiers returning from battle without all their limbs. Ta-dah, technology transfer.
Other times, a person with an interesting problem seeks out NASA. A deer hunter knew that deer urine attracted deer, but deer urine lost its attractive qualities quickly. NASA had developed a urine preservative for the human biological testing done in spaceflight so that bodily fluids could be preserved for analysis back on Earth after a mission. The deer hunter contacted NASA and adapted the urine preservative to improve hunting odds.
Leetsma welcomes “non-traditional partnerships.” NASCAR drivers now wear the type of underwear that NASA developed for astronauts on spacewalks. The underwear’s tubes circulate cool water to keep racecar driver or extravehicular astronaut comfortable.
In 2005, the United States portion of the International Space Station (ISS) was designated a national laboratory, just like Fermilab or Los Alamos. NASA will continue to maintain and operate ISS at least through 2020, a decision that cheered the space business community. Only with that commitment from NASA can businesses make plans to use the space station. The ISS National Laboratory—through an NGO called CASIS—is working with other government agencies, universities, and private industry to encourage low-Earth orbit research and application of that research on Earth.
So who’s really in charge of the ISS National Lab in this new relationship? And what’s going on up there these days? We learned some new and surprising things, and the folks at the private companies involved are incredibly jazzed about zero-gravity capitalism.
Check back at Lofty Ambitions for more on technology transfer. In the meantime, ponder this chart of what’s costed what in our federal spending in response to economic crises over the years (and note the relatively small amount of total NASA spending).