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Down to Earth


The New Physician March 2001
NASA has long been on the forefront of technological innovation, but have you ever wondered what happens to all of this technology originally developed for outer space? As it turns out, it is all around you—on the wards and in the clinics. It’s even at the corner drug store.

Since NASA’s inception in 1958, technology from the space program has been applied to practical uses on Earth. When Alan Shepard became the first American to enter space in 1961, NASA scientists developed a device to screen his blood pressure. That machine has evolved into the instant blood pressure monitor that can be found in almost every drug store in the nation.

In those early days, however, the majority of space technology’s alternative applications occurred only by pure chance, according to Roger Launius, NASA’s chief historian. Back then, the agency paid little attention to spinoffs of its technology and certainly did not make a concerted effort to commercialize its innovations, Launius says, and he adds that many spinoffs occurred simply through informal exchanges of information within the scientific community.

However, as the years of the space race with the Russians passed, agency officials found it necessary to establish NASA as a legitimate recipient of government resources by demonstrating to the public and Congress the benefits of space exploration. To do this, NASA began to institutionalize the spinoff process, if not fully promote it, Launius says. Beginning in 1991, the agency developed a network of six regional technology transfer centers, which are responsible for providing the private sector with greater access to NASA technology.

Within the medical field, however, a greater breakthrough in finding alternative uses of NASA-sponsored technology may have occurred in 1997 with the establishment of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI). Within the NSBRI are a number of research teams, each with a unique background and focus, studying specific health issues confronting the space program. Because the institute uses researchers outside of NASA, the NSBRI’s director, Dr. Jeffrey Sutton, believes it’s more likely they’ll see how a technology or idea can be applied on Earth.

Already many NASA technological advances have found a place on Earth. Here are some spinoffs you may encounter in your career: