Over the course of its history, NASA has nurtured partnerships with the private sector to facilitate the transfer of NASA-developed technologies. The benefits of these partnerships have reached throughout the economy and around the globe. The resulting commercial products have contributed to the development of services and technologies in the fields of health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, environmental resources, computer technology, and industry.
The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that created NASA called for the new agency to disseminate its technology for public benefit. In accordance with NASA’s obligations, the Innovative Partnerships Office (IPO), on behalf of NASA, facilitates the transfer of NASA technologies for commercial application and other national benefit.
NASA Tech Briefs spoke with the IPO chiefs from the ten NASA field centers across the country to find out how they each help businesses, entrepreneurs, and local communities engage with NASA through technology partnerships, licensing, and outreach programs.
The unique facilities and research capabilities at each field center help the Agency better address which areas can be expanded from applications solely in spaceflight and exploration, out to the commercial community in the forms of spinoff and dual-use technologies. Said David Makufka, Manager of the Technology Transfer Office at Kennedy Space Center (Florida), “We’ve categorized our research into eight capability areas that support not only the Kennedy programs and missions, but also feed into the Agency technology roadmaps to address the gaps in those roadmaps. The capability areas help us identify where we want to make technology development investments that are of key interest to Kennedy where we have unique expertise and capabilities within the Agency.”
For example, according to Ramona Travis, Ph.D., Chief Technologist at Stennis Space Center (Mississippi), because Stennis’ test processes produce so much energy, they are interested in finding “unique and interesting ways of harvesting and capturing energy, converting it, saving it, and then reusing it in other forms to power sensors and the like. There will be applicability to other aspects of NASA as well as to the commercial sector.”
Dual-use technologies also play a major role in R&D at Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX). Jack James, Lead for Tech Transfer and Intellectual Property Management, explained that, “We look at the dynamics of systems and some of them have applicability for entry, descent, and landing. There are a lot of systems associated with that to detect hazards, and those things may be applicable to autonomous automobiles.”
Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, OH), which focuses on high-temperature materials and composites, communications, electronics, sensors, and energy and propulsion, has developed dozens of technologies in these key areas that have led to successful commercial products. Explained Kim Dalgleish-Miller, Chief of the Innovation Projects Office, “Our award-winning technologies enable greater safety and engine efficiency in aircraft, safer joint replacements, reliable communications during disasters, and minimally invasive, real-time health monitoring.”
There are several technology directions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, CA) that are necessary to enable the next generation of science missions. “There are many areas that JPL considers strategically important to be sure we have the technologies we need for the next generation of spacecraft,” said Indrani Graczyk, Manager of the Commercial Program Office. “An example of one that has commercial applications is sensing technologies. Probably the most famous is the CMOS imager, which is now the standard technology for cellphone cameras. It was developed here in the 1990s, the researchers started a company, and the technology was widely adopted.”