NASA research sends IT, consumer projects into orbit

Space agency has helped improve health care, microprocessor, X-rays, other technology

Aware that his family had a history of heart disease, then-50-year-old Gary F. Thompson saw his doctor before deciding to run a Los Angeles marathon in the mid-1990s.

His doctor gave him the go-ahead to run the race, but Thompson, who had been an active athlete his whole life, had a heart attack at mile 20. The attack damaged 48% of his heart muscle.

Thompson said that the devices used to test his heart lacked the ability to determine the true risk he faced in running the marathon.

After recovering from the trauma, Thompson created a company that used technology developed by NASA, the US space agency, to create a device that can more accurately judge heart health.

Some may say that NASA, based in Washington DC, is an odd place to find a way to build better cardiac care equipment, but the idea isn't really that far fetched at all.

Technology developed by NASA scientists routinely makes its way into products developed in the robotics, computer hardware and software, nanotechnology, aeronautics, transportation and health care industries.

Scott Hubbard, who worked at NASA for 20 years before joining the faculty at Stanford University, where he is a professor in the aeronautics and astronautics department, said that NASA research has had a significant impact on the IT industry over the past 40-plus years.

"NASA has had a huge impact on [IT]. The integrated circuit and [the development of] Silicon Valley were very closely linked with NASA," Hubbard said. For example, he noted that hardware pioneer Silicon Graphics got off the ground with the help of investments from NASA.

Hubbard also noted that NASA engineers have worked "hand-in-hand" with businesses and universities to help develop a variety of technologies, including Microelectromechanical Systems, supercomputers and microcomputers, software and microprocessors.

Overall, Hubbard added, US$7 or $8 in goods and services are produced for every $1 that the government invests in NASA.

The benefits of NASA research are clear even with the knowledge that myths have often arisen NASA research -- Tang was not developed by NASA for astronauts and agency engineers did not develop the microwave oven.

After suffering the heart attack, Thompson founded Medical Technologies International Inc. and licensed NASA's Video Imaging Communication and Retrieval software for use as the centerpiece of a new cardiac system.

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