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March 19, 2013
Industry Overview

Budget Woes Could Affect Technology Transfer

As a result of the $85 billion broad-brush sequester, which officially kicked in  March 1, 2013, NASA’s share of the federal cuts for fiscal year 2013 is nearly $900 million, a budget reduction from $17.8 billion to $16.9 billion.

The commercial crew program, partnering NASA with commercial aerospace companies to safely deliver astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), likely will take one of the hardest hits. Some sources say lead contractors Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX, as well as dozens of subcontractors, could begin feeling the pinch early this summer.

Paying a Launch Premium

Howard Bloom, founder of the Space Development Steering Committee, told Universe Today that cuts to commercial crew would be a disaster, delaying when U.S. astronauts could launch on U.S. rockets. He lamented, “This nip and tuck may result in a period of an additional one to two years in which America cannot get astronauts to the International Space Station on our own launch vehicles—but we are committed to manning the Space Station.”

How? By paying Russia around $63 million per passenger to hitch rides on Soyuz capsules. Here’s a bit of irony: U.S. lawmakers late last year voted to enact punitive measures against those involved in the 2009 prison death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who implicated top state officials in a $230 million tax-fraud scam. By allowing the sequester to take root, our government now will fund a nation they intended to punish for human rights violations by shoveling an estimated $350-$450 million into Russia’s lap each year for cab fare to the ISS.

Impacting Technology Transfer

In addition to commercial crew, NASA science and research reportedly faces cuts to the tune of $51.1 million, including possible launch delays and a 10-15 percent decrease in mission selections. This could put a serious damper on NASA technology transfer, i.e., technology that’s commercially repurposed to improve quality of life and ensure U.S. competitiveness and technological leadership. Since NASA began publishing Spinoff in 1976, its number of technology transfer stories has grown to nearly 2,000.

NASA Isn’t Alone

While facing its own budget issues, the European Space Agency (ESA) also has a technology transfer program with which it has supported the development of 180 new European companies to date. The agency recently adapted a model for operating its Earth observation (EO) satellites to streamline Spanish passenger train operations by processing millions of chunks of data in real time, providing passengers with more timely and precise information.

Similarly, when NASA improved its ocean color EO satellites to better identify and validate critical sea changes, it was able to transfer the technology to Biospherical Instruments. In turn, the company developed cost-effective microradiometers—small, narrow sensor tubes that collect data underwater.

Biospherical Instruments since has sold the technology to researchers around the globe for more than $2 million and recently adapted the product for atmospheric research. In addition to innovations such as these, ensuring the health of astronauts in the challenging environment of space has allowed NASA to foster a host of space program-inspired medical innovations that benefit millions of patients.

Such commercial successes underscore the importance of maintaining a robust space program. Nobody knows how, what or when NASA or ESA technology will inspire the next great idea for improved food production, effectual healthcare or any number of advances beneficial to society. But with the medical cost curve refusing to bend and an ailing planet beneath our feet, is it in our best interest to curtail these programs now?

— By Jeff Specht, publisher, Earth Imaging Journal

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