Those looking for real-life applications of all of the cool technology NASA creates need look no further than cleaning appliances or one of the biggest fad toys of a decade ago.
“The computational power that was used to make an Apollo spacecraft successful is now embodied in a Furby,” said Dr. Ed Lazowska. “It’s not clear that this is the greatest social use for that technology, but it’s still a remarkable comment on what we’ve been able to do.”
Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, was speaking as part of a panel about “The Importance of Technology and Innovation for our Economic Future” at the NASA Future Forum held Dec. 9 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. He sees robotics as a major area of innovation in the coming decade.
“NASA has been a pioneer in robots in unstructured environments, where they have to be autonomous and they have to respond to unanticipated situations,” Lazowska said. “You see these in your home today in the person of the Roomba vacuum cleaner.”
“This notion of robots in unstructured environments working with us is going to be transformative in the next ten years,” he said.
Robert Pearce, NASA’s head researcher, says today’s jetliners are a prime example of how agency’s work has made it out into common use. Instrumentation, wing and engine design, the shape of the planes, even the way the pilots work together all were born from the space agency.
“The DNA of everything that flies started at NASA,” Pearce said, though he noted one exception. “When you turn and go down into the airplane and you see all of those tight, cramped, uncomfortable seats—that’s not NASA.”
Joseph Parrish, who moderated the panel and is NASA’s deputy chief technologist, takes exception to the often-expressed view that the space agency is doing little more than blasting scarce tax dollars into space.
“We’re not actually packaging up a bunch of dollar bills into the nose cone of a rocket and firing it out to Mars, to be spent by Martians, on a prank,” Parrish said. “We’re spending that money on planet Earth, and in the process of developing the systems that we do send to Mars and to Jupiter and to Saturn and beyond we’re enabling things here on planet Earth. We’re creating high-technology jobs that in turn inspire new ideas and create and new ecosystems of supporting companies. Think of all the companies that support Boeing. Think of all the companies that are going to support this burgeoning commercial launch industry that NASA is helping to kick off.”
One of those companies is Redmond-based Aerojet. It’s executive director for electric propulsion and integrated systems, Dr. Roger Myers, says his company is working on better ways to get spacecraft from here to there.
“Today’s propulsion systems are pretty inefficient,” Myers said. “That means that you have to carry a huge amount of fuel, you have to launch a tremendous amount of propellant, to get beyond low-Earth orbit. It takes big, expensive, unique rockets to do that.”
“We have to change that paradigm,” Myers added. “If we’re going to explore deep space we need a balanced set of investments, in both the launch architecture, the way that we launch people and cargo, and also we need a parallel set of investments in deep-space transportation architectures.”
Lazowska said that a big problem with technological innovations is that the uses are seldom obvious.
“It’s often not clear at the outset what the real benefit of an innovation is going to be,” he said. “When people were working on the Internet, ARPANET, nobody was thinking about email or the web or ecommerce or digital media. It was for remotely using expensive mainframe computers. You see this pattern again and again.”
Lazowska said the concept of technology transfer is important but often misunderstood.
“The goal of university technology transfer is to put publicly funded innovation to work for the public good,” he explained. “People have to get over the notion that somehow you’re going to float the institutional boat on licensing revenues, and realize that the goal is to make our nation the world leader, and make our regions regions of innovation.”
You can watch the entire panel discussion on the NASA TV video below.