NASA research finds way into IT, consumer products

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

The software had been developed just a few years earlier by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 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, 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."

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 took advantage of that research to develop nutrients that are now added to more than 90 percent 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.

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld (US)
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