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NASA Squandering Technology Commercialization Opportunities

Unknown Lamer posted more than 2 years ago | from the commercial-space-elevator dept.


coondoggie writes "The commercialization of all manner of space technologies has always been a forte of NASA, but the space agency faces a number of economic and internal challenges if that success is to continue. A report by released this week (PDF) by NASA Inspector General Paul Martin that assesses NASA's technology commercialization efforts is highly critical of the space agency's ability to identify and get important technologies out of the lab and out the door to commercial applications."

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Because... (3, Insightful)

busyqth (2566075) | more than 2 years ago | (#39214763)

Because that's why NASA exists after all: to help private investors monetize the products of publicly funded research.

Re:Because... (1)

roc97007 (608802) | more than 2 years ago | (#39214819)

But what is the alternative? Make all publicly funded research a state secret? Have publicly funded investors monetizing the products?

Have no publicly funded research?

Re:Because... (1)

Deus.1.01 (946808) | more than 2 years ago | (#39214879)

I don't know...maybe make them PUBLIC!

Re:Because... (4, Insightful)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215077)

I don't know...maybe make them PUBLIC!

They do. There is a publication called "NASA Tech Briefs" that is available in print or on-line. It has lots of information about technologies developed by NASA.

If the private sector isn't exploiting the technologies, I don't see why that is NASA's fault.

Re:Because... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39220557)

Here are some links (I used to maintain these sites):

Re:Because... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39216083)

Hooray!!!!! Benefit of all man-kind and all. Didn't Neal say that?

Re:Because... (1)

PNutts (199112) | more than 2 years ago | (#39216409)

But what is the alternative?

Dismantle NASA.

Re:Because... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39216663)

Yep. Because we need to save that $0.8 billion a year for our $450 billion a year war machine. You know, the one that invented modern plastic, gave us satellite communication technology for GPS, and advances our society in 1,000 other ways each year.

Off by quite a bit. (4, Informative)

mosb1000 (710161) | more than 2 years ago | (#39217447)

Note that NASA's proposed budget for 2012 is $17 Billion [] and that represents a cut from 2011. You are also low for the cost of the US military, which weighed in at $684 Billion [] in 2010.

I know that this doesn't impact the point you were making, but if you're going to put down actual numbers you should try to make sure they are at least close to truthful.

Re:Because... (4, Interesting)

Nidi62 (1525137) | more than 2 years ago | (#39214823)

It looks to me that selling the products of their research is pretty much the only way NASA is going to get any funding these days. If they can develop new technologies and then license them for production, they could make up for their loss of funding. The only trick would be to make sure the money isn't funneled away to politicians pet projects or to cover something else.

Re:Because... (2)

Deus.1.01 (946808) | more than 2 years ago | (#39214953)

I'm all for state run enterprises, but in this case it makes MUCH more sense in letting everyone make shot with new technologies.
You would get much more out of the tax income of several businesses expanding based on new technologies, then you would out of licenses.

Re:Because... (1)

reilwin (1303589) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215777)

How likely would NASA be able to get funding obtained from an increase in the tax base, though?

Oh boy this will fix NASA for sure! (2)

arcite (661011) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215431)

Add another layer of bureaucracy! Doh!

Re:Because... (1)

steelfood (895457) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215491)

If NASA's technological advancements can't be placed in the public domain for all to use, then I say they should at least get a cut of whatever product their technology ends up in.

Kind of like how MIB is funded.

Re:Because... (1)

FatLittleMonkey (1341387) | more than 2 years ago | (#39220327)

Because that's why NASA exists after all: to help private investors monetize the products of publicly funded research.

Errr, yes.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act:
"Congressional declaration of policy and purpose:
(a) Devotion of Space Activities to Peaceful Purposes for Benefit of All Humankind.
(b) Aeronautical and Space Activities for Welfare and Security of United States.
(c) Commercial Use of Space.--Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space."

It was also the sole reason NASA's predecessor, NACA, was created, to support the US aircraft industry when it was being threatened by European manufacturers.

Just patent the hell out of everything. (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39214765)

Then, sell the patents. Hey, it's a proven successful strategy.

Re:Just patent the hell out of everything. (3, Insightful)

Githaron (2462596) | more than 2 years ago | (#39214917)

If research is publicly funded, the research should be publicly owned.

Re:Just patent the hell out of everything. (1)

trout007 (975317) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215799)

The big problem these days is ITAR. Almost every document we release has to go through ITAR review. If it's your job to review this here are your options. Make it sensitive and cover your butt or make it not subject to ITAR and risk your butt. Hmmm which would you do?

Re:Just patent the hell out of everything. (1)

Beardo the Bearded (321478) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215959)

What I loooove is ITAR cables.

I love trying to find out OD or bend radius on a cable that someone's deemed ITAR. Look guys, if someone is on your war machine ripping out the cables to try and figure out what you're doing, then you have bigger problems to worry about.

But that's kind of the point (1)

alexander_686 (957440) | more than 2 years ago | (#39214981)

The point is that NASA scientist are scientist – which means that they are good at basic research, but does not mean they are good a business.

A lot of research institutions throw off start ups left and right (Stanford, MIT) come to mind. They have a staff which is good at providing start up funding and / or marketing the patents.

Politicians like this. Public spending creates small business which creates the jobs of tomorrow.

However, this is kind of hard to do with basic research because it is basic. Principals, once discovered, are universal. Applications take decades to figure out. Everybody likes to say the Moon Shot created the modern chip industry – but it had to take a really crooked path to get from one spot to the next. Ask top scientist back in the 60’s what would turn up and they would not talk about chips – they would talk about iron crystals and wonder drugs.

It’s hard to know what NASA has in storage that has any (or what) value.

Re:But that's kind of the point (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 2 years ago | (#39218939)

However, this is kind of hard to do with basic research because it is basic.

Not really. The results may not have an obvious dollar value attached to them, but the idea that one has to fiddle with basic science for decades in order to get something useful isn't borne out by history.

I've made this statement before and needless to say, it's pretty controversial, so people challenge it. "What about electricity [lightning rods] and magnetism [navigation of ships]? Quantum mechanics or relativity [photocells, nuclear bombs, X rays for medical purposes]? Calculus [trajectories of cannon balls, volume of containers like barrels, and just calculating cool stuff]? Astronomy [navigation and time-keeping, now, space-based resources for human use and knowledge about the space environment]?"

The point is that it has to be a pretty obscure and/or abstract thing, like perhaps category theory or classification of bats by the morphology of their intestines, before it becomes difficult to point to near future benefit from the study of such fields.

Normally, I make the argument to justify evaluation of scientific research (the usual contrary argument being that one cannot evaluate research because one can't evaluate applications that won't happen for decades or centuries in advance). But it's also striking in this instance because the fundamental problem is that we have difficulty applying scientific research. Could it be that this expectation of no near future benefit actually helps hurt innovation in the first place?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to finding near future applications (particularly of the serendipitous sort) is that if you don't look for unexpected or near future benefits, then you don't find them. And that may explain all in itself why the US doesn't innovate so much any more.

Re:Just patent the hell out of everything. (3, Funny)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215001)

Then, sue the hell out of anyone using the patents. Hey, it's a proven successful strategy.

PTFY (Privatized That For You)

Duh (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39214903)

The purpose of NASA is to spend money, not make it.

and get sued... (1)

who_stole_my_kidneys (1956012) | more than 2 years ago | (#39214955)

If NASA starts selling it software , there is bound to be some troll out there saying they invented it, and sue NASA for copyright infringement.

I bid U.S. $ (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39215027)

  $1.00 for ALL of the Space Shuttle technology.

I'll have it shipped to the Energia [] Baikonur Cosmodrome [] .

Yours In Soyuz,
Kilgore Trout, Cosmonaut

Nepotism (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39215183)

The issue is that every little thing has to be politically vetted.

Basically I signed up for a semi-external workgroup tasked to develop low cost technology that NASA can use for their planetary study activities. The result was a datalogger and soil analyzer based around old Android phones (which can thus be recycled or bought for cheap on ebay).

This guy G. told everyone that he was the leader of the team that invented the technology (whereas in fact I invented the technology, and he said he'd help me market it to scientists) and went completely ballistic when I called him on it as shown here . Even after seeing those emails, his supervisor at NASA has not reprimanded him seriously and instead has asked me to play along (he said "I need your technical skills but I also need his political skills"). I don't think so because the US is better than that, but it may have to do with the fact that G. is related to a high ranking government official.

Note that I never accepted G. as the leader of anything, and when we first met to discuss cooperating, I made it clear to him that for me there exist collaborators and customers, not bosses.

Since then I have talked to scientists to arrange demos, etc. and he has been sabotaging the effort by canceling the meetings. Unfortunately he has a security clearance and I don't, which makes it easier for him to go around and tell people things.

When I announced that the system was completed, he sent an email to everyone telling them that I was no longer working on the project... which is true, except it's because the project is finished!

This is not the first time he tries to take credit for the work: in a tech conference he had said things like "It came to me that we could do this or that" when in fact it came to me first and I did something about it. (Link removed, but you can find it in

I since sold a few of these to industrial customers, so the job is definitely done...

At this point my obligations are to:

1) The historical record. As an engineer I must tell the truth and cannot tolerate falsehood in a matter of engineering, as specified in the IEEE Code of Ethics.

2) The project itself. It would reflect badly on my professional reputation if I did not complete it.

3) The team. One of the senior scientists, who is G's direct supervisor, asked me to collaborate. This means I must keep offering opportunities to collaborate whether I like it or not.

My main problem is that I don't understand why people are backing G's stance even after the crazy things he said and wrote! Every time I try to make a logical point as to why I am in the right, I either get no reply (if in email) or I am told things such as "You are technically right" but nothing changes. Is this a cultural thing that I am missing?

I don't want revenge: I even said I would forgive him and we could keep working together if he started pulling his weight and we would do so as equals, but he wants to tell everyone he's the leader and then not do work instead. What is the right thing to do here?

Re:Nepotism (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39215589)


Re:Nepotism (1)

Brian Feldman (350) | more than 2 years ago | (#39217761)

The right thing to do? Work with people that have ethics. I'm leaving a job at a mostly-NASA contractor for a number of reasons, one of which is NASA's retarded bureaucracy.

Re:Nepotism (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 2 years ago | (#39221035)

Because anything you don't understand, is retarded.

Commercialization never been a strength (3, Interesting)

khallow (566160) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215279)

The commercialization of all manner of space technologies has always been a forte of NASA

I'm sure in some alternate universe, this is true. Not here though. NASA's "spinoffs" have always been one of the more bizarre myths of the program. Most such spinoffs are really companies getting paid to do what they intended to do anyway.

I've had the opportunity with a former non profit employer to go looking through NASA research, (sometimes dating back to when NASA was NACA), and a common scenario is someone gets paid for a few years to do something interesting, they write a bunch of papers, and then the whole thing gets deep-sixed while all the staff move on to the next research project. In one case the surviving researcher barely remembered the research because no one asked about it for 40 years!

Meanwhile how seriously does NASA take all this research? They're chucking it from their ever shrinking library at NASA headquarters, for starters.

This thing of turning public funds into research that nobody reads has been going on as long as NASA has existed. That's why I rolled my eyes at the above statement.

Re:Commercialization never been a strength (1)

jfengel (409917) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215867)

B-b-b-b-but velcro! And Tang! And space pens! And... and... and I'm sure I'll come up with something.

Re:Commercialization never been a strength (2)

Concerned Onlooker (473481) | more than 2 years ago | (#39216789)

You forgot shake testers and aerogel. Perl was initially developed at JPL. Stuff happens--or used to happen--at NASA centers that no corporation would ever try if they couldn't see an immediate dollar in it.

Re:Commercialization never been a strength (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 2 years ago | (#39218767)

You forgot shake testers and aerogel. Perl was initially developed at JPL. Stuff happens--or used to happen--at NASA centers that no corporation would ever try if they couldn't see an immediate dollar in it.

Like what? Got any examples in mind?

Public Domain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39215359)

Is this a Tragedy of the Anti-Commons situation? I was on a NASA Tech newsletter in the 90's, and it was all-patents-all-the-time. I hope they've improved and are just dumping it out there in the public domain.

Awkward commercialization problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39215379)

I know of a NASA funded project to develop solar plant growth stations for trips to Mars. Since the solar radiation decreases as one gets closer to Mars, the contractor (a for-profit business) engineered a system that collects light with solar concentrators and uses fibers to couple the light to plant growth stations. They even had a plan to separate the spectral components not used by the plants for photovoltaic energy.

The only problem is how to commercialize this technology? We all know that there is a potential market for green plant growth stations, especially in Northern CA and British Columbia. The big problem is that nobody in this company, which relies on government contracts, really wants to be associated with this particular customer base, and the folks at NASA probably feel the same way.

Basic problem: Delsusional managment in gov't (2)

dbc (135354) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215547)

NASA creates a lot of great technology. On our dime. So, it seems like we taxpayers have two competing interests. One, since we paid for it, we should have access at some reasonable cost, perhaps even free. On the other hand, it seems reasonable for the agency involved to at least collect enough in license fees to cover the cost of doing the licensing. After all, it requires work on the part of engineers to package the technology for transfer and to do the documentation, and attorneys and other business development people to negotiate the deal and execute the paperwork. So it seems reasonable to me for the recipients of the technology to, at minimum, cover the cost of executing the technology transfer, and not force taxpayers to cover that cost as well, which is essentially a subsidy to the private industry recipient.

But on to my main point -- the problem is going to be sales and pricing. I am on the board of a small educational non-profit. We were looking for lab and teaching space a while back, and looked at some space at Moffett Field. Since the Navy has moved out, NASA is the largest tenant at Moffett. The Moffett Authority, which is in charge of leasing, is delusional to the point where you keep wanting to ask them: "What planet are you from?". The space they offered was the crap of crap, and they wanted a rent 4X to 5X what better space goes for a half mile away outside the Moffett gates. Couple that with their reputation of being the most restrictive, nit-picky, slow-to-respond, bureaucratic landlord in Sili Valley and it was pretty easy to scratch them off our list.

So if that is any indication of what it is like trying to do business with NASA, where they are not in a customer role but are in the role of providing customer service at a price that provides value -- well, I don't have a lot of hope. Until someone invents a culture transplant operation, I think that having management that is clueless about how private enterprise does business and is delusional about the value of what they bring to the table dooms the concept.

Bell Labs alternative (4, Interesting)

Okian Warrior (537106) | more than 2 years ago | (#39215707)

The annual budget of NASA is around $18 billion. For comparison, the annual revenue of WalMart is $421, Toyota is $228 and AT&T is $124 (billion).

The budget of Bell Labs peaked at around $3.6 billion in today's dollars.

NASA claims to generate a ton of innovation which helps to drive the economy. I see no reason not to privatize NASA by running it in the same way as Bell Labs - work on all sorts of stuff, but sometimes direct your focus on useful stuff for both NASA's main mission and economic innovation.

NASA should be self supporting. Whenever they uncover something which would be useful in the marketplace, they should market it and get some return for the effort.

Over time we could slowly wean them away from the government teat, and allow them to be self directed. Instead of wasting gobs of cash on political projects with no good scientific mandate (*cough* space station *cough*), they could choose their own course and focus on things which actual scientists think is useful.

Licensing, patents, renting expertise, products (make and sell satellites), and charging for access to space come immediately to mind. Given the cost of sending a satellite into space, would it really be that hard to take in $18 billion in revenue?

I dunno, I'm probably not taking human nature into account.

Re:Bell Labs alternative (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39215843)

At least we would be able to eliminate the whole space pretense if we did that.

Re:Bell Labs alternative (3, Interesting)

recharged95 (782975) | more than 2 years ago | (#39216003)

Human nature == Supply and demand.

NASA generates so much knowledge from pure research and a decent amount in applied research that there's no market to leverage it.

Back in the day, there was a market, the old silicon valley, bell labs, IBM R&D, HRL, Corning, etc... There was a demand aspect of corporate facilities and research universities not associated with NASA that would leverage output from NASA. Today, NASA is tightly coupled with tenured funded professors (i.e. no real cutting edge research), there are no big corp labs, and silicon valley is more interested in advertising bucks or how you make fake money (i.e. social gaming).

NASA can continue to innovate a lot--that they actually still do, but the outlet to absorb it is just not there.

Re:Bell Labs alternative (2)

khallow (566160) | more than 2 years ago | (#39218857)

NASA generates so much knowledge from pure research and a decent amount in applied research that there's no market to leverage it.

There's a problem on the other side too. Lack of demand is a real problem. NASA rarely during its entire history has generated knowledge that someone would pay for with their own money. With other peoples' money, sure, but not their own money.

As to the dearth of business and private labs, I think one need not look further than the vast swell of government funded research to find the reason. Why do your own research at your own risk when Uncle Sugar can pay you exorbitant amounts to do risk-free research?

Re:Bell Labs alternative (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39219519)

A lot of pure research has decade+ payback, no company will do that. Even with a guaranteed return the next quarterly report always out-ways ten years time, as next to none of the big institutional shareholders who own most of the market are investors, instead they are traders and often short term traders so god luck justifying that. Note also that the success to failure rate is also poor, you get a good payback on average as some stuff works, but this is only good when measured on the scale of your whole economy, if you own less than double digit percentages of the economy then there is no incentive for anything like what happens in academic research.

Re:Bell Labs alternative (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 2 years ago | (#39222769)

A lot of pure research has decade+ payback, no company will do that.

Society gets what it rewards. It used to happen. But it's easier to milk public funding than take such risk these days. For the people who do like to take such risks, there are easier routes to wealth than long term efforts (though you'd be surprised how much basic science is being funded by those short term wealth seekers).

Re:Bell Labs alternative (1)

gewalker (57809) | more than 2 years ago | (#39216111)

I suppose based on your comment re: the International Space Station that this page [] should be an error 404 instead of packed with references to "scientific research". Perhaps surprising, I mostly agree with most of what you said.

Plenty about the ISS is of questionable merit based due to the high cost of the research, but a lot of that what due to the horribly inefficient shuttle delivery service.and as well as political considerations -- there is no lack of scientific value for a decent space station, there is a political mandate for doing real science on a space station.

1) Need to improve $/kg for low earth orbit. 2) Need to get politics out of NASA. And yes, these issues are deeply related.

Maybe we could use railgun tech designed for the Navy to launch materials payloads from a high altitude balloon platform with a railgun -- People and many things need lower-acceleration. It's not like this is the only possibility [] either.

Also, when space is sufficiently commercial, probably won't need a NASA at all for the kinds of things it does today. Maybe they can research warp drive, and crazy ideas with a much reduced budget.

Re:Bell Labs alternative (1)

bertok (226922) | more than 2 years ago | (#39216135)

To a degree, CSIRO here in Australia works like this. Its research is often commercialized and sold, usually via patent licensing. They just recently won $200 million from companies manufacturing WiFi equipment that hadn't properly licensed their patents.

Personally I think that the way a national research organisation should function is that it should give its research away for free to the citizens and corporations of its home country, and charge foreign organisations to use the patents. That way, it would be a socialised boost to the nation's research without the overhead of having to charge people for access, but still self-fund itself to a degree.

spongE (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39215795)

opinion in other are inc0mpatible noises out of the TCP/IP stack has declined in market

Nasa should take the Kanamit's approach (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39219903)

Make a grand high tech entrance for the world to see, address the UN, and publish solutions to everything cryptically in a volume called "To Serve Man".
Or they can just patent all the tech under the agency and make a ton of money hiring patent trolls to sue everyone. Then NASA can develop intergalactic space travel in less than ten years...

Open source (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39223667)

In the quest to commercialize, NASA is also squandering a lot of opportunities to engage in serious open source development.

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