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NASA Explores A New World: Crowdsourcing Ideas


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'd like to turn now to a new initiative from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration - NASA. NASA wants to know how their technologies can best be applied commercially and they are asking you for ideas. Daniel Lockney is here to tell us more about this. He is NASA's technology transfer program executive and he was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DANIEL LOCKNEY: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I wonder if people remember how much NASA technology we actually use as consumers. Can you give us a couple of examples?

LOCKNEY: Sure. The camera in your cell phone was developed by our researchers at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Caltech. Infant formula - 95 percent of the baby food sold in the world has an additive that we discovered - the omega-3-omega-6 combination - believed to be important in the development of the brain and the eyes, fatty tissues. We're the first to synthesize it - long-duration space flight experiments.

MARTIN: And you were telling me that the shape of the modern truck or the modern semi is a result of some NASA aerodynamics - you were telling me that. But you were also telling me that I was wrong about Tang. NASA actually doesn't get credit for Tang or Velcro.

LOCKNEY: Yeah, or Teflon.

MARTIN: Or Teflon?

LOCKNEY: All of these things were popularized by the space program but invented elsewhere. And we're not opposed to getting ideas from elsewhere.

MARTIN: Well, that's the idea here. So now you're teaming up with a company called Edison Nation. What kinds of things are you looking for?

LOCKNEY: So this is one of our open innovation projects where we're crowdsourcing. We develop something - perhaps it's a sensor, an optics configuration or new metal. In this instance, with Edison Nation, it's actually a device that monitors brain waves and provides feedback to a machine. So we develop technologies. And we know what we're going to use them for but we often don't know how else they can be used. So we're asking the public through this Edison Nation work and then also through a company called Marblar. And the idea is to tap into the untapped cognitive surplus - that people are online, you know, drawing pictures, captioning cat photographs and doing all of these otherwise creative things - perhaps we can get them to work for us, too.

MARTIN: What exactly are you asking of people? What are you asking them to do?

LOCKNEY: So it's almost like we've given them a blank sheet of paper and we said what can you make of this? And they would say I can make an airplane, I can make a hat, I can make a boat. But instead of a blank sheet of paper, we're actually handing them a technology. We're saying here's a device that has the following characteristics - what else can be done with it? Here's a foam that will get to a specific temperature, will rigidize at a specific rate, and it will get this hard and is this lightweight - what can you use it for?

MARTIN: So I think a lot of people are familiar now with crowdsourcing and like Kickstarter - and for that matter an NPR fundraising campaign, right? And so you are looking to the public to fund something that they like. In this instance, the thing already exists so you're looking for - what - ideas on how it could be used?

LOCKNEY: That's right. We're not asking for dollars. We're asking for clever ideas. And then the options spiral out from there. If someone who proposes an idea is interested in actually pursuing it for commercialization, they're more than welcome to and we'll work with them to do that. If they have an idea but the technology needs further RND - further development - we can help with that. If they just want to give the idea and say hey, somebody should do this then we can also pursue that as well.

MARTIN: So this sounds so crass but what's in it for me? If I participate in this, what's in it for me? I understand that there is an answer to that question. There is something other than the pleasure of seeing your ideas come to life, that there's actually potentially royalties involved, right?

LOCKNEY: Perhaps. So there's a way that this could be structured. There's so many different possibilities with it. First, if you just propose an idea you get the same gratification as if, you know, you captioned one of those funny cat photos and a bunch of people liked it. You get a bunch of thumbs-up on the Internet for it. So that's one end of the spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum, you could license technology, create your company around it and go off and you would actually receive dollars from sales. The royalty income is slightly different. That's dollars that come back to the government and we are the most generous agency in terms of what we give the inventors. So a large chunk - most of what first comes in from a licensing arrangement goes to the actual government inventor. The rest goes toward kind of routine patent maintenance fees and such.

MARTIN: But you're saying that there is the opportunity for the sharing of commercial benefit...

LOCKNEY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...As a consequence of this. This is not - I mean, getting a like is nice but you're talking about possibilities for kind of commercial remuneration as a consequence of - with participation in this - which was logical, right? Which - yeah.

LOCKNEY: Absolutely. So we did a survey very recently - it went back over 10 years of companies that had taken our technologies and commercialized them - and found some pretty impressive results. Several, you know, tens of billions of dollars in increased revenue from companies that use our technology. Several hundred thousand lives saved as a result of incorporation of our technologies and consumer products. Jobs created - tens of thousands.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I wanted to ask about a couple of things - things that I think people do know that NASA does which is still space exploration. I wanted to ask you about NASA's Orion test fight scheduled for later this year. I understand that there's a new computer system involved. It's 25 times faster than the International Space Station computers and 4,000 times faster than its predecessors in the Apollo program. Tell me about that. I mean, is there any chance that this technology will make it into consumer projects? And of course, you know, I have to ask you about the flying saucer. I'm going to ask you to tell me about that.

LOCKNEY: Sure, absolutely. So computers and software are an increasingly large portion of the technical work that we do. There's still a lot of hardware. There's still a lot of traditional RND. But we're finding software's increasingly important. As a matter of fact, just this year we released, for the first time, a complete NASA software catalog that we had talked about getting some of these ideas out to the public. With over 1,000 codes, all free, for secondary application. And these are business tools, design software - a whole line of everything we've ever done work in is now available for the public.

MARTIN: And tell me about the flying saucer. And I'm using that term colloquially, of course. But NASA launched an experimental - I think - vehicle this weekend. Tell us about it - over Hawaii. So I guess the - I guess what a lot of people are seeing is if you thought you saw a flying saucer over Hawaii Saturday, you weren't crazy. So tell us what it was.

LOCKNEY: It's the LDSD - the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator. And the idea behind it is you produce enough drag for re-entering the atmosphere. In this instance, we're talking about the Martian atmosphere. You need to slow down the spacecraft before you can gently land it onto the surface. You know, you don't want to go careening into the surface of Mars after spending all that time to get there. Typically, we've been using the technology - a parachute technology that we developed during Viking Lander era. And it's the same thing that we used to get curiosity to slow down in 2012 for that landing. And the idea is that we would have larger, heavier spacecraft that need newer technologies - more advanced technologies to help slow them down. So instead of a parachute, it's kind of a long - almost like a blob - that's a flying saucer that will slow down the spacecraft before it reaches the atmosphere.

MARTIN: And what will this allow? Why is this important?

LOCKNEY: We'll have larger, heavier spacecraft from Mars. And the typical parachutes that we've been using in the past won't be able to sustain that landing.

MARTIN: So it's an important milestone.

LOCKNEY: The idea is to land humans on Mars in the next couple of decades. And this is an important next step.

MARTIN: Daniel Lockney is NASA's technology transfer program executive. He was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios. Daniel Lockney, thanks so much for joining us.

LOCKNEY: Thank you. It was a lot of fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.