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Celebrates private sector deployments spaceborn tech


One of the things I look forward to reading every year is NASA’s Spinoff magazine. This annual report shows how the research done by the space agency affects the rest of the world in surprising and interesting ways. This year is no different, and NASA technology can be found in everything from hiking gear to heavy industry and, funny enough, space.

This year’s issue, which you can look through here, talks about dozens of technologies that are now used every day in different places. (It’s about 60 pages long, so get a cup of coffee and get comfortable.)

I talked to Daniel Lockney, who is in charge of NASA’s Tech Transfer Program. His job is to make sure that NASA’s research and technology are used by companies on Earth.

“Most of the time, NASA comes up with something, tells my office about it, and we look at it to see, first, if it works. The second question is who else can use it? And if someone can, we figure out how to get it to them,” Lockney said. “I try to give away as much as I can for free. I don’t know how to make money or give anything back to the U.S. Treasury. The law that made NASA possible in 1958 told us to share our work, but it didn’t say anything about making money.

As a result, interesting techs like small, long-lasting water filters, weird mechanical parts, and another tech that was needed for space or launch but might have a second use on Earth can be licensed for cheap or free.

Lockney pointed out a couple of the new items that he thought were particularly interesting.

“We worked with GM to make the Robo-Glove, a functional glove that astronauts will wear to help reduce strain when doing repetitive tasks and improve their grip strength,” he said. “On a spacewalk, you can squeeze something a few times, but holding a tool for the whole afternoon is hard. So we made this glove to help with that kind of work, and now factories all over the world use it.”

The Swiss company Bioservo bought the Robo-Glove patents from NASA and has been improving on the idea for years. Last summer, it released the latest version of its Ironhand device. Employees with hand injuries that could cause them to lose their jobs can most often use it to get back to work faster and take less pain medicine.

Tech isn’t always licensed by just one company. Lockney said that NASA was the first group to study the question of precision farming in a completely artificial setting.

“NASA is doing a lot of research on how to keep crews healthy during long-distance space travel. “One thing we need to do is grow our own food. Seeing plants is also good for our mental health,” he said. “But we had to find ways to grow plants without soil or even hydroponics because water is so heavy and valuable. And the lighting has to be right,

but you can’t waste too much power. So, we came up with these ways to farm to grow a lot of plants in a small area. If you control the stress on the plants, you can really dial in precise growth conditions and increase yield. We actually use a nutritive film that covers the roots, LEDs to give the right spectrum of light, and sensors everywhere.

“It’s the same in cities. How do you feed this many people without wasting farmland and other resources? But we did this research because no one else did. It turned out to be a direct result of what was needed for space travel. Now, there are a few companies that do vertical farms in cities with lots of people and actually sell vegetables to grocery stores,” he said.

We’ve talked about a few of them, and they’re still in their early stages, but it’s clear that both consumers and investors want food that is grown efficiently and just a few blocks away instead of food that is shipped from a thousand miles away.


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