Subcommittee Examines NASA Derived Technology Transfer Activities

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Publication date: 
20 July 2012

“Exploring  both traditional and nontraditional means for technology transfer to the  private sector is equally important if we hope to leverage space technology development  as an engine for economic growth and US competitiveness.” –  Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS)

A July 12 hearing in the House Science, Space and  Technology’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee highlighted National  Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) investments which have generated  technology that has had direct economic and social benefits. 

Palazzo opened the hearing by acknowledging that NASA’s  contributions to society are often not a focus of the discussions about the Agency  while recognizing that NASA technologies have paved the way for innovative  advances in the areas of medicine, environmental research, and public  safety.  He said that despite decades of  success, NASA’s budget has “remained  essentially flat even as other [research and development] agencies are seeing  increases.  Investment in NASA’s  technology transfer activities, however, has seen a drastic decline in recent  years.” 

A NASA Inspector General (IG) Report on  Technology Transfer concluded:

NASA has missed opportunities to  transfer technologies from its research and development efforts and to maximize  partnerships that could provide additional resources, and industry and the  public have not fully benefited from NASA-developed technologies.”

Regarding  the IG report, Palazzo commented that the IG found a general lack of  awareness among NASA program managers about the technology transfer and  commercialization process and that many personnel did not understand the range  of technologies that could be considered as technological assets. Furthermore,  the report found that the number of patent attorneys and dedicated Innovative  Partnership Office staff – and related funding – was insufficient given the  technology transfer and commercialization potential. The IG recommended NASA  implement a review of the policy process and implement new procedures and  training requirements to ensure NASA personnel were fully aware of the process  and their responsibilities. The IG also recommended that NASA reassess the  allocation of resources for technology transfer.”

NASA Chief  Technologist Mason Peck highlighted how NASA stimulates the growth of the US  innovation economy.  “NASA takes on extraordinary challenges by taking humans to  inhospitable environments….  Solving  technical problems in aerospace also leads us to invent technologies that make  life better right here on Earth,” Peck stated.  He highlighted examples of knowledge from NASA  space craft being used in weather forecasting; improvements made to protective  gear used by military and firefighters that was a result of NASA research on  spacesuits; and NASA contributions to research in the areas of biomedical  applications, energy efficiency, agriculture, and supercomputing. 

Peck noted  that NASA “agrees with the findings of the IG and has taken advantage of the report  to make a number of improvements to their program.”  He also stressed that the spinoff products  and companies stemming from NASA research rely on NASA having an on-going  robust investment in research and technology.   The creation of new NASA technology leads to transformational  capabilities, new industries, new economic growth and jobs.    

George  Beck, Chief Clinical and Technology Officer at Impact Instrumentation, Inc.,  described how the Space Act Agreement created a government, industry, and  academic partnership that allowed all three groups to share institutional  knowledge and experience while developing solutions that benefit society. 

Brian  Russell, Chief Executive Officer of Zephyr Technology highlighted NASA’s role  in a wide variety of projects including monitoring the health of trapped  Chilean miners.  John Vilja, Vice  President for Strategy, Innovation, and Growth at Pratt & Whitney  Rocketdyne, also emphasized the value of NASA in industries other than space,  explaining that NASA is a source of intellectual capital that allows companies  to test new processes and conduct multi-disciplinary research. 

Vilja stressed “that we have an energy policy or a NASA  science policy that continues to make the technology that allows us to go  forward and create spinoffs and that means we have to keep investing in  developments as well as production as well as coming up with new technologies.”  He explained that the development of  technologies allows for the possibility of spinoffs while production allows for  the measurement of these new technologies.   He suggested that NASA policies should especially focus on how to create  new technologies since the payback is uncertain. 

Richard  Aubrecht, Vice President of Moog, Inc., stated that “new technology is not just in the drawings and reports and hardware  that is built.  What is really important  is that you are building the capability of a team of people who understand how  to take on a really really hard problem and as a result of doing that, they  develop the confidence to be able to take on other really hard problems.”   

During the  Member questioning period, Ranking Member Jerry Costello (D-IL) recognized the  tremendous challenge in educating the public as to what NASA is doing and asked  the panel of witnesses about how NASA actively engages the public, universities,  and teachers.  Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL)  asked about NASA’s engagement with the entrepreneurial community.  Rep. Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-MI) was extremely  interested in learning more about how to leverage NASA spinoff technologies in  Detroit in order to create jobs.  Clarke  asked the witnesses as to what barriers companies face when partnering with  NASA to which there was a consensus that projects need to be consistently  brought to fruition. 

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