Since its inception, the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama, has promoted an active program to transfer technology designed for the space program into products to improve life on Earth.
Early on, Marshall set the pace in the emerging field of technology transfer with specialized welding technology developed for giant rockets. Welding was the first NASA technology offered to private industry, marking the start of NASA's technology transfer efforts. Some of the welding techniques were developed at Marshall because existing methods were not adequate in meeting stringent specifications necessary in the building of large booster rockets.
In 1963, NASA produced a publication titled Welding Tips, dealing with the industrial applications of space research. Welding Tips became the first of a series of publications that NASA would issue periodically. The 26-page magazine was an instant hit with industry. By July 1964, NASA received 6,900 requests for the publication.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Marshall Technology Utilization team worked diligently to ensure proven technology was offered to business and industry. The term "spinoff" became a common reference to the technologies and discoveries derived from NASA's Technology Utilization Program. For example, the "power factor controller" was invented by a Marshall engineer under NASA's Solar Heating and Cooling Program in the late 1970s and patented in the early 1980s. The device senses fluctuations in the amount of power needed by an alternating current electric motor and then varies the power supply to meet the need. Laboratory tests show 6- to 8-percent savings under normal demand conditions, and as much as 65 percent when a motor is idling.
These tests resulted in a flood of interest. More than 20 companies were granted non-exclusive licenses for commercial use of the power factor controller technology. In 1998, an exclusive agreement was reached with a licensee for the specific purpose of controlling motors not in existence when the device was first patented.
At the same time, Marshall again led the way in transferring welding technologythis time with a special-purpose arc welding torch, designed to provide better quality welds with less room for human error. The torch was developed by Marshall engineers and B&B Precision Machine, Inc., for the difficult variable polarity plasma arc welding of the Space Shuttle External Tank. The company still sells this spinoff product today to aerospace and research organizations needing to weld complex aluminum alloys and titanium.
In 1994, Marshall's Technology Utilization Program changed its name to the Technology Transfer Department and continued its work to identify and transfer space innovations. In 1997, Marshall expanded its role to include management of NASA's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, working on commercialization and technology development collaborations based on Space Act Agreements, technology investment programs, and community investment programs. The Center's mission evolved from a consulting role to a formal commercialization and licensing role. Working closely with the Center's Patent Counsel and the Research Triangle Institute of Research Triangle Park, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Marshall's Technology Transfer Department now performs technical, business, and legal assessments to determine commercial potential, trends, and marketability of candidate technologies. The ultimate goal is to advance the technology readiness level of Marshall innovations into near-future and obtainable commercialization.
Today's approach results in a wide variety of benefits, from law enforcement to cancer treatment. One example, the Video Image Stabilization and Registration (VISAR) system, is a computer software invention that uses technology developed for enhancing images of the Sun to improve poor quality video. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was the first non-NASA beneficiary, using VISAR to analyze home video footage of the deadly 1996 Olympic Summer Games bombing in Atlanta, Georgia. VISAR was inducted into the U.S. Space Foundation's Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2001, and won the Excellence in Technology Transfer award in 2002 from the Federal Laboratories Consortium. Intergraph Government Solutions and BARCO Inc. Display Systems have integrated VISAR into video enhancement system products for law enforcement, the military, and even home computers.
In another area, the need for a flexible tool to analyze rocket engine fluid flow prompted Marshall engineers to invent the Generalized Fluid System Simulation Program. Its flexibility, ease of use, and applicability to a wide variety of commercial industries earned it NASA's Co-Software of the Year for 2001. Concepts ETI, Inc., holds an exclusive license agreement for the software.
Product identification technology, pioneered at Marshall to track Space Shuttle parts, is used by the private sector to mark items ranging from groceries to automobile parts. Capable of storing 100 times more information than a barcode, the two-dimensional Data Matrix symbol resembles a small checkerboard. Acuity CiMatrix and its parent company, Robotic Vision Systems, Inc., formed an alliance with Marshall to develop commercial applications. Data Matrix symbology was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2001, and has been endorsed for NASA-wide application by the NASA Technical Standards Program Office.
Examples of Marshall's contributions to the medical field are abundant. Light emitting diode (LED) technology, originally developed for growing plants in space, has successfully treated cancer patients who have exhausted traditional therapies. Doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, are applying this technology in photodynamic therapy, using pinhead-sized LEDs to illuminate or activate light-sensitive, tumor-treating drugs called photosensitizers. The process allows the drugs to find and destroy cancerous cells, leaving surrounding tissue undamaged. In another application of the same technology, Quantum Devices Inc., is collaborating with physicians to use LEDs in treating hard-to-heal wounds such as diabetic skin ulcers, serious burns, and severe oral sores caused by chemotherapy and radiation.
Another Marshall-developed medical advance, ocular screening technology from space telescopes, is helping detect eyesight problems in school children. Vision Research Corporation integrated the technology into an ocular screening system used to test over 1.5 million children. The company placed these systems in pediatric offices and health clinics in more than half of the United States with mass screening operations in 10 states.
Activity in welding technologythe area where Marshall technology transfer first flourished nearly 40 years agocontinues today. The Retractable Pin Tool for Friction Stir Welding, developed at Marshall, virtually eliminates the pesky "keyhole" associated with this type of welding. The technique involves slowly plunging a rapidly rotating pin into the joint between two materials to be welded and moving it along the joint. At the end of the weld, the single-piece pin tool is retracted, which in the process would leave a "keyhole."
MTS Systems Corporation integrated the pin tool into its advanced friction stir welding process for welding high-strength alloys for automotive, shipbuilding, and other industries. It uses a computer-controlled motor to automatically retract the pin into the shoulder of the tool at the end of the weld. MCE Technologies, Inc., also successfully commercialized the Stirwelder product incorporating the pin tool. It provides virtually flawless welds in nearly all applications using high-performance aluminum alloys, including those previously considered "unweldable."
These are just a few of the hundreds of technologies that have come from Marshall in the past 40 years. Through its ongoing work in the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs, as well as the cutting-edge Space Launch Initiative, Marshall will continue to play an important role in transferring NASA technology to improve the life of every citizen here on Earth.
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