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NASA celebrates private sector deployments of space-born tech in its latest Spinoff

·5 min read

NASA's Spinoff magazine is one of the things I look forward to reading every year. The space agency's research trickles down to the rest of the world in surprising and interesting ways, which it tracks and collects in this annual publication. This year is no different, and NASA tech can be found in everything from hiking gadgets to heavy industry and, funnily enough, space.

There are dozens of technologies that have made their way to everyday use in a variety of places highlighted in this year's issue, which you can browse here. (It's about 60 pages, so pour some coffee and settle in.)

I talked with Daniel Lockney, the head of NASA's Tech Transfer Program overseeing the deployment of its tech and research among terrestrial companies looking to put it to good use.

"Typically what happens is: NASA develops something, they report it to my office, and we look at it to figure out, first, does it work? And second, who else can use it? And if someone can, we figure out how to get it to them," Lockney explained. "I try to give as much away for free as I can. I've got no direction to generate revenue or bring something back to the U.S. Treasury. The 1958 NASA act that created us says to disseminate our work — nothing in there about making a dime."

The result is cheap or free licensing of interesting tech like compact, long-lasting water filters, unusual mechanical components and other tech that was needed for space or launch purposes but might find a second use on the ground.

Lockney highlighted a couple items in the latest batch that he thought were especially interesting.

"There was a partnership with GM to develop the Robo-Glove, a functional glove that astronauts will wear to help reduce strain during repetitive tasks and increase grip strength," he said. "Squeezing something on a spacewalk, you can do it a couple times, but if you're gripping a tool for the whole afternoon... so we developed this glove to assist in that work, and now it's being used at factories around the world."

Two images of people wearing a robotic glove at work.
Two images of people wearing a robotic glove at work.

Image Credits: Bioservo Technologies

The Swiss company Bioservo licensed the NASA patents for Robo-Glove and has been iterating on the concept for years, and the latest version of its Ironhand device came out last summer. Its most common use case is by employees with hand injuries that might cause them to lose work, but can use the glove to return to the job faster, as well as reduce pain medication.

It's not always just a single company licensing a tech. Lockney noted how NASA was the first organization to look into the question of precision agriculture under totally artificial conditions.

"NASA has a lot of experiments for keeping crews healthy on long distance spaceflight. One thing we have to do is grow our own food, plus there's the psychological benefits of seeing plants," he said. "But we needed to find ways to grow crops without a heavy growing medium like soil, or even hydroponics — water is so heavy, and so valuable. And you have to get the lighting right, but you can't use too much energy. So we made these farming techniques to grow a lot of plants in a small space. If you control the plants' stress, you can really dial in precision growth conditions and improve yield; we actually use a nutritive film that covers the roots, LEDs to give the right spectrum of light and of course there's sensors everywhere."

"It's a similar situation in cities, how do you provide food to this population without the resource waste of farmland? But we led this research because no one else had the need for it — it ended up being the direct result of the demands of spaceflight. And now there are a handful of companies doing vertical farms in dense urban areas, actually providing grocery stores with vegetables," he continued.

We've actually covered a few, and they're still in early days, but the appetite is clearly there for both consumers and investors to have food grown efficiently and within a few blocks of them rather than shipped a thousand miles overseas.

NASA work makes its way to leisure as well as life-sustaining industries. At least three of the items in this year's Spinoff have to do with outdoors activities like hiking and camping. One, a thin-film radiant barrier originally used to line spacecraft, has made its way to jackets by 13-One and others as a super-light insulating layer. Aerogel research from the '90s has made its way to new gear from Seattle-based Outdoor Research (a brand I covet when I walk by their store). And a material called NanoCeram is used in a new portable water filter bottle.

One new application you wouldn't expect to find in a publication about spinoff techs is Astrobotic's Peregrine moon lander. In the past such things have been exclusively the domain of nationally backed programs, but with the commercial space sector expanding quickly, NASA tech is valuable to spacefaring companies as well.

Not all of these are new — some are decades old and still finding new applications or companies to sell them.

"By the time we've done all the work and we've found a partner doing the commercial stuff, manufacturing, marketing.... next thing you know, 10 years have passed," Lockney said. "The R&D timeline is long and the commercialization timeline is long."

But that means there's always something fresh coming out even when the papers or materials are years old. There are dozens more techs and companies worth looking at in this year's Spinoff, so take a look. And if you've got time, head to the archives.