Spinoff at 40: How tech transfer brings NASA back down to Earth

Originally published in Goddard View

From your memory foam mattress to the digital image sensors in cellphone cameras, NASA technology developed for space exploration often winds up benefiting everyday life on Earth.

When NASA was established through the National Aeronautics and Space Act in October 1958, the government called upon the
February 2016 cover of Goddard Viewagency not only to explore space, but also to ensure that the technologies created through its work could be adapted for commercial use. In 1962, the agency established a formal program – currently NASA’s Technology Transfer Program – to facilitate and report the transfer of technology to the private sector.

NASA highlights these “spinoffs” – commercial products or services that began as or have benefitted from the agency’s technologies – in annual reports that are prepared for congressional budget hearings and the scientific and engineering communities, but which have also generated a great deal of public interest. The reports evolved into the full-scale Spinoff publication, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year with the release of the 2016 issue.

“There was a remarkable amount of foresight that we would yield terrestrial, practical benefits,” said Dan Lockney, executive of the Technology Transfer Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington and former Spinoff editor. “The money we spend on space research has these useful results right here on Earth.”

Since 1976, Spinoff has highlighted about 2,000 spinoffs. The free publication features technologies in health, medicine, consumer goods, energy, environment, industrial productivity, information technology, public safety and transportation.

“Space is a bigger part of our lives than we realize. People don’t always realize that when we pursue these noble things like going to space, there are side benefits that come out of it,” said Daniel Coleman, current Spinoff editor at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We’re not going into space just to get spinoffs, but there are all sorts of great things that come about when you try and dare to do difficult things.”

This year’s edition features more than 50 impactful technologies, including a rice crop model that helps farmers use sustainable irrigation practices, a pressure garment that helps stop postobstetric hemorrhaging and a new drug that treats osteoporosis. Research that focused on capturing and manipulating carbon dioxide on Mars even led to a system that allows microbrewers to capture carbon dioxide released during fermentation and use it for carbonation.

“The beauty of the Spinoff enterprise and technology transfer in general is that there are thousands upon thousands of stories to tell,” added Lockney. “Each one is bizarre and wonderful.”

Some technologies are potentially life-saving as well, and he would be one to know.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, created an ultrasound device that detects plaque buildup in the carotid arteries. Gary F. Thompson, founder of medical products manufacturer Medical Technologies International, distributed this hand-held machine to hospitals across the country.

Ironically, while writing a feature about the technology, Lockney underwent the ultrasound and learned his arteries were unhealthy. He took up running and switched to a vegetarian diet, and his health drastically improved a few years later when he retook the test.

“I’m tall and lean, and I had no real indication that I would have had any sort of arterial thickness,” Lockney said. “It hit very close to home.”

Spinoffs may not be at the forefront of the agency’s mission, but NASA technologies have been successfully applied to almost every sector of the U.S. economy.

“NASA doesn’t view spinoffs as the justification for the space program. We want to go to space. We’re human beings and we want to explore,” Coleman added. “But it’s only fair to recognize that when we do these things, there are these secondary and tangible benefits.”


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