NASA Plan Needs a Little Spin

by Brad Plummer, photo courtesy of NASA

NASA does a bad job telling taxpayers the good news about space research.

In 2004, President Bush rekindled one of his father’s lesser-known ambitions by rolling out a grand scheme to reinvigorate NASA’s languishing space program. Called the “Renewed Spirit of Discovery,” the current plan calls for the retirement of what’s left of the shuttle fleet and the development of a new vehicle to take astronauts to the Moon and eventually to Mars. The vision promises to expand the human presence in space for the advancement of “ U.S. security, scientific, and economic interests.” Security and science may be part of NASA’s televised routine, but advancing “economic interests” sounds unlikely considering the proposed $100 billion price tag for the adventure. Advocates for the vision boast about technologies that will surely trickle down, a conceit that for some conjures the Apollo-era promises of spin-offs like Tang and Velcro.

Space exploration has produced a range of second-hand benefits over the years, but NASA is not a commercially profitable enterprise. The catalog of consumer goods that come directly from space exploration is thin, but many secondary products have come from NASA research that improve the quality life here on earth. (For the record, two products often associated with NASA—Tang and Velcro—weren’t developed by the agency at all. General Mills produced Tang in 1957, which gained favor with John Glenn during in-flight taste tests in 1963. And alpine hiker George de Mestral invented Velcro in 1948 after he noticed burrs that stuck to his wool pants.) But most NASA innovations never make it into the public eye. The new vision for space exploration threatens to turn unconvincing—as it did when the previous President Bush proposed colonizing Mars in 1989—unless taxpayers get a bolder and more substantive accounting of the real benefit of our trip to Mars.

Despite the gimmicky reputation of NASA spin-offs, space exploration has a definite track record of producing useful technologies. One out of every thousand U.S. patents belongs to NASA. The agency holds over 1,400 aeronautical patents alone. Anyone with a computer can license and develop any of the 14,000 items currently cataloged online in the NASA technology database (

The expectation that NASA should give something back to taxpayers is an idea as old as the legislation that created the agency. The Space Act of 1958 makes it clear that, in addition to exploration, the agency should make available any new technologies developed along the way. NASA began using those dividends as justification for the expense of the space program as a public relations tool in the early 60s. NASA administrators saw the need for promoting space exploration’s earthly benefits at the height of the Apollo program. They knew public enthusiasm would decline once the Moon had been conquered. Philip Harris, a NASA faculty fellow, recalls that, even in the early days of Apollo, NASA was gaining a reputation as “just another government agency,” and that officials were scratching their heads over how to improve NASA’s image. Harris said that, in the early 1960s, he proposed to administrators that the agency promote what it gave to society as way of boosting public perception, and soon the agency began distributing small flyers to Congress listing the latest NASA technologies. Among the first technologies listed was a thin, reflective film called Mylar, still used today in weather balloons and lightweight insulating blankets.

Space exploration continues to roll off useful and mostly unsung technologies. Cordless power tools, first developed during the Moon missions, bring in billions annually. The switch that activates airbags in cars owes its existence to NASA engineers, as do the LifeShears used by EMTs to pry open a car once the airbags have gone off. Recently, a team of shuttle engineers and cardiologists developed an implantable pump to assist the ailing hearts of children awaiting transplants, basing the design on the fuel pump used in the shuttles’ main engines.

One NASA technology that shows particular promise in the commercial realm emerged from studying living tissues in space. In the early 1990s, engineers at Johnson Space Center tackled the problem of how to send living tissue samples for research into space and keep them from disintegrating during the intense vibration of launch. The result was a three-dimensional bioreactor, now marketed commercially by Synthecon. The Synthecon bioreactor is a rotating, soup-can sized barrel filled with growing medium that works like a petri dish that can grow solid chunks of tissue instead of simple flat plates of cells. Scientists may one day use these bioreactors to grow whole cancer tumors from biopsies, enabling them to test new chemotherapies. As with other spin-off technologies, the innovation of Synthecon’s spinning bioreactor emerged from exploring a novel and dangerous environment ripe with obstacles otherwise unforeseeable by engineers.

But NASA’s efforts to spread word of their accomplishments falls short of convincing form a taxpayer’s point of view. Today, the in-house newsletter originally given to members of Congress is called Spinoff Magazine . As a marketing tool, Spinoff may appeal to elected officials or to technorati with a working knowledge of mechanical engineering, but it is not a reader-friendly vehicle for information. Interested readers must complete a request form for a current copy, and back issues are $13. And once a company succeeds commercializing a NASA technology, there is another form to fill out to promote that success. Undoubtedly there are better ways to capture the attention of taxpayers otherwise mostly ambivalent about space than with a jargon-heavy technical document intended for politicians.

Not only does NASA’s public relations approach fail to dispel the obscurity of the thousands of technologies the agency develops, but no one has accurately calculated the actual value of NASA spin offs. (Daniel Lockney, editor of Spinoff, cites widely quoted numbers from informal studies in the 80s and 90s that estimate NASA generates between 7 and 22 dollars for every dollar invested in NASA research. But, according to a 1998 report by the Federation of American Scientists, those numbers are unrealistically high, having been calculated out of NASA’s research budget, not it’s overall budget.) From 1978 to 1986, the height of research and development on the shuttle—and presumably fertile territory for potential spin off—NASA spent $55 billion, only $2.5 billion of which was considered R&D; the other $52.5 billion went to overhead like salaries and maintaining communications networks. The agency reports that during that same period, $5 billion went back into the economy in the form of spin-off technology, a return on investment of about 10 cents on the dollar against the overall budget, a loose estimate at best without detailed scrutiny—something NASA has yet to undertake.

Part of the problem of accurately accounting NASA’s economic return is the huge size of the market for some technologies—like the cordless power tools credited to have come from the Apollo program, now manufactured by dozens of different companies. Tracking innovation as it begets similar innovation over the years makes it hard to draw line between where NASA ideas begin and end. Considering the value of successful NASA technologies—like cordless power tools—over many years, the real value of spin off is actually much greater than NASA estimates.) Lockney admits that to date no one tracks spin-off technologies and the businesses that develop them, but said that Spinoff plans to add two staff positions to start doing so.

We may never have a clear accounting of the return on investment, but NASA must rid itself of the simplistic reputation of giving back only gimmicks and breakfast drinks. Taxpayers have the right to expect grand results—like trips to Mars—from grand investments. But the dividends—historical, political, economic—from the space program will be diffuse and indirect compared to traditional capital ventures. If the White House expects the renewed vision to actually result in rockets aimed at other planets, taxpayers must be told the whole truth: the venture will be long term, risky, and expensive. Getting to Mars would surely mean benefits here on earth, but without a relevant way of communicating that to taxpayers who are funding the adventure, we may never get there.