Volume 6, Number 1 January/February 1998
Welcome to Innovation
The Promise of NASA's Commercial Technology Network
by Robert Norwood
he NASA Commercial Technology program is proud to be a part of NASA on its 40th anniversary. With the Space Act of 1958, Congress not only gave NASA direction for leading America's space program, but also a mandate to work with U.S. industry. This partnership captures the imagination of the world as NASA explores space. It has also created economic wealth here on Earth. Forty years later, NASA's technology transfer and commercialization program has generated exciting new technologies in the United States and abroad that positively impact our economy and boost our global competitiveness.
While NASA's role at the cutting edge of research in space exploration is well known, the potential commercial applications of this effort are equally inspiring and renowned. The benefits of NASA technology to everyday life are wide rangingfrom scratch-resistant sunglasses, home water filters and athletic shoes to advances in medical research, airline safety and firefighting techniques. The applications of NASA's technologies also have the ability to create jobs, new companies and entire industries.
Understanding gained through NASA research and space exploration promotes more effective skills in a wide range of everyday technologies and aids in producing and processing many materials, including metals, semiconductors, polymers and glass. A great example is the area of semiconductors, which have contributed improved efficiency in the computer and electronic communications revolution and support today's information-driven society. We drive cars and fly airplanes that were designed using NASA computer software. We live in homes and work in office buildings that carry electricity through flat conductor cables that incorporate NASA technology.
Many other examples will result from NASA's strategic plan to advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of Earth and space, to explore, use and enable the development of space for human enterprise and to research, develop, verify and transfer advanced aeronautics, space and related technologies.
Technology transfer and commercialization is growing in importance to our economic well-being as well as contributing more than one-third of all U.S. business technology needs. The NASA Commercial Technology Network (NCTN) is seeing a huge industry demand for NASA technologies as U.S. companies reach out to public sector research and development (R&D) as a means of responding to increased international competition.
Congress and NASA recognized as far back as 1958 that federally sponsored R&D is an enormous but underutilized economic resource. As we grow closer to the next century, it is imperative to vigorously form and continue these partnerships essential to U.S. economic growth. From that 1958 Space Act, Congress has passed a series of laws urging our universities and federal laboratories to aggressively pursue these R&D arrangements. Successfully utilized partnerships with industry benefit not only NASA and the industrial customer, but also the economy and U.S. taxpayer. As federal budget cuts continue to tighten the availability of R&D funds, these partnerships assume greater importance to all federal agencies in meeting their own missions.
The International Space Station (ISS) will provide the opportunity for long-term research that can be applied to commercially viable products and processes. By working with private and public sector partners, it is hoped that the ISS will help facilitate our commercial partners' access to space. The commercial goals for the ISS are to foster space commerce, improve industrial processes and keep America competent and competitive in the growing international marketplace and at home.
NASA established the NCTN as a foundation for its technology transfer and commercialization mission and has built an extensive infrastructure toward this end. It began with NASA's Centers of Excellence (field centers): Ames, Dryden, Goddard, Johnson, Kennedy, Langley, Lewis, Marshall and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NCTN was expanded to include:
NASA is to be commended for not only embracing this mission from Congress, but also strengthening it in documents such as Administrator Goldin's Agenda for Change, which reestablishes NASA's commitment to work with industry to move federally funded R&D into the marketplace. All of us in the NCTN look forward to continuing NASA's dynamic role of expanding the horizon of knowledge, while benefiting humanity through new commercial products and services well into the next century.
Look for updates in future issues of Innovation.