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House Subcommittee Highlights Benefits of NASA-Derived Technologies

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2012
Updated: 12-Jul-2012 05:29 PM

An oft-asked question in Congress is how to explain to constituents the value of spending tax dollars on NASA.  At a congressional hearing today, NASA's chief technologist and representatives of four companies talked about their partnerships with the agency in technological spin offs or spin ins.

Ask almost anyone and they will tell you -- mistakenly -- that NASA developed Tang, Velcro and Teflon.  In fact, the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Steve Palazzo (R-MS), started today's hearing by saying that NASA's "contributions to society are often distilled down to Tang and Teflon." 

NASA was only a user of those discoveries and creations, however, not an inventor of them.  Tang was a commercial product already available when the human spaceflight program began in 1961.  Velco was developed by a Swiss engineer in 1948.   Teflon was discovered in 1938 and given its name in 1945. 

The agency is rightfully credited with creating a wide range of other technologies that led to products in wide use today, however.  NASA publishes an annual book, Spinoffs, that details some of them and has a website devoted to the topic.

Spin offs as a justification for NASA spending are controversial among economists and even within the space community.  Some argue that the connection between the NASA investment and the final product often is tenuous or that the new product would have been developed with or without NASA involvement.  Be that as it may, when searching for explanations of why spending money on NASA benefits people on Earth, the idea has a lot of staying power and a reasonable track record to back it up.

Mason Peck, NASA's Chief Technologist, offered a number of examples during the hearing, while other witnesses discussed the overall benefits of the nation's investment in NASA technologies.  John Vilja of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne talked about the application of the company's expertise in "materials, temperatures, speeds and pressures" derived from building rocket engines to the energy field, including solar energy and coal gasification.  Richard Aubrecht of Moog, Inc., summarized Moog's decades-long relationship with NASA, particularly in human spaceflight programs, that led to the company becoming "the world's leading aerospace flight control company" and creating "more business at Boeing, more efficient passenger aircraft, better flight controls on military aircraft, and more reliable, less expensive launch vehicles."

Two other witnesses offered examples of spin in.   George Beck of Impact Instrumentation recounted how his company, which develops life support equipment for the defense department and others, has benefited from partnering with NASA through Space Act Agreements that allow NASA engineers access to his company's technology early enough in the development phase to identify changes that would make it useful for NASA missions.  Brian Russell of Zephyr Technology similarly discussed his small business's succcess in working with NASA on remote physiological status monitoring systems.  "Working with NASA gave us the information and feedback we needed to move from the realm of science fiction to the mainstream," Russell said, and aided NASA when it was working to help save the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped last year.   In a ringing endorsement, Russell ended his statement by saying that "nothing but good - and [a] great deal of good -- can come from funding NASA and its programs."

A webcast of the hearing, the hearing charter, and prepared statements are available on the committee's main website and Democratic website

 


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