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Sunday, May 26, 2024

NASA’s Newest Spinoff Tech Comes Back to Earth

In March 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic began to sweep into the US, it dawned on a group of engineers chatting in the cafeteria of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory how devastating the respiratory disease would become. They knew that more—and better ventilators—would help. Within a couple of weeks, they had cobbled together a ventilator they called VITAL, which is easy to assemble and made with fewer than 100 parts, all of which are widely available from supply chains.

By the end of April, the US Food and Drug Administration had given VITAL an Emergency Use Authorization. Since then, more than 100 manufacturers in the commercial medical industry have applied for a free license to build their own version. Now these ventilators are being used around the world, including extensively in India and Brazil.

On Monday, NASA published its book-length Spinoffs 2022 report highlighting the ventilator among scores of examples of technologies—from environmental sensors to new materials to collaborative robots—that the agency’s scientists and engineers played a role in developing and sharing. Sharing is built into the agency’s DNA: The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which created NASA, mandates that the agency disseminate the technologies it develops within the commercial sector and state and local governments.

Dan Lockney, NASA’s Technology Transfer Program executive, paraphrases the law like this: “Don’t just blast all this technology and science into space. Make sure it comes back down to Earth in the form of practical terrestrial benefits.” Today NASA holds more than 1,200 patents, which companies can apply for licenses to use; the main requirement is that there’s a viable path to commercialization, Lockney says. The licenses are free for startups, with a nominal fee for established companies. The agency has identified more than 2,000 spinoffs since 1976. “NASA gets asked to do things that have never been done before, and in the process we inevitably invent things that have never existed before,” says Lockney.

For decades, NASA has worked with commercial partners to put together the pieces for every mission, which include not just rockets and spacecraft but also spacesuits, space food, equipment, software, and technologies developed to monitor and protect astronauts’ health. After declaring “mission accomplished,” leaders of those private companies sometimes want to use the tech they helped create for other purposes. Outside companies or startups also have new ideas for how to use a NASA invention. And NASA personnel can make their own contributions, like the VITAL ventilators. 

Take the problem of moon dust. The fine lunar particles can be a real nuisance for astronauts, worse than beach sand. “You have to take into account the dust and dirt on the moon, which can be very damaging to equipment and human health. It’s very sharp, it can be chemically poisonous to humans, and it’s electrostatic, so it clings to everything,” says Julian Cyrus, chief operating officer of the Denver, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost.

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He cofounded the company with colleagues in 2017, and they developed the Space Canary, a small air quality sensor to monitor for those particles, as well as carbon monoxide and other gases. They originally designed it for a moon habitat prototype Lockheed Martin was bidding to develop for NASA, since future lunar astronauts wouldn’t want to contaminate their spacesuits and living area with all that dust. Lunar Outpost built its sensor to meet specifications laid out in NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, which invited private companies to propose ideas for structures astronauts could inhabit on the moon. After that project, the company came up with a version for Earth, the solar-powered Canary-S, offering low-cost, wireless monitoring of air quality and weather.

Another example, also mentioned in the report, stems from a collaboration between NASA and General Motors engineers that resulted in the design for the Robonaut 2, or R2, a humanoid robot meant to work alongside astronauts to take on repetitive or dangerous tasks in places like the International Space Station. That work led to patents for industrial-strength robotic gloves, which have since been licensed and commercialized by the Swedish company Bioservo Technologies

The prototype Robo-Glove, inspired by R2, eventually led to Bioservo’s Ironhand, a set of thin, linked sensors that snugly fit under the fingertips and palm of a person's work glove, which connects to a power pack that can be worn in a backpack. The sensors detect when the wearer is trying to grasp something, and the glove grips it for them, as tightly and for as long as they want to hold it. Instead of being worn in space, this version would be worn by industrial workers on Earth who have to lift heavy objects or do repetitive tasks with their hands. “Factories have tried to introduce automation, and what’s left is more manual labor because you can’t really automate things you do with your hands—they’re so complex. That’s where we come in, because this creates strain injuries in the hand,” says Mikael Wester, Bioservo’s marketing director.

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NASA has also long experimented with space farming, growing everything from chile peppers on the ISS to foods meant for long-distance voyages to Mars. Those efforts include attempts to farm crops—including Mark Watney-style potatoes—in controlled environments, with limited water and little or no access to sunlight. 

One company has already transferred some insights gathered from a NASA project back to its operations. New York-based Bowery Farming operates vertical hydroponic farms, where crops grow on shelves on a wall and the water is continually recycled. A few of Bowery’s employees had previously worked on a NASA-funded project at the University of Arizona that served as a precursor for research on plant growth in a simulated space habitat in Antarctica. “NASA really laid the foundation that led people in academia to push forward, which then allowed us to push forward. They planted the seed that has grown to let us be where we are,” says Henry Sztul, Bowery’s chief science officer.

More examples abound, from aerogel insulation that’s now used in blankets and footwear to the technology for unlocking smart devices with one’s unique heartbeat. But not every innovation people associate with NASA engineers actually came from them. Apollo-era space pens, which the sitcom Seinfeld made fun of, were actually made by Fisher. NASA also had no part in developing Velcro, Tang, or Teflon.

While specific space-related investments have been criticized by some US policymakers, including funding for the ISS and the James Webb Space Telescope, there has generally been bipartisan support for the technologies and commercial applications that eventually emerge from NASA’s R&D. “When we advocate for science, the spinoff technologies are definitely one of the planks that we use. That message resonates with some Congress members,” says Julie Davis, the American Astronomical Society’s public policy fellow in Washington, DC.

That’s what Lockney and his colleagues at NASA’s Technology Transfer Program try to highlight: the long-term and widespread benefits that often come from investments in the agency. “These technologies, when we spin them off, result in cool products and services. But they also represent companies, oftentimes small businesses, who are boosting their local economies and hiring people and creating jobs,” he says.


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