Kennedy Space Center Officials Tout Economic Opportunities

Commercial enterprises and partnerships increasingly are taking advantage of economic opportunities at NASA's Kennedy Space Center and the agency is eager to add to the tally, center officials recently told the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast during a session focused on technology transfer.

"I hope today will lead to establishing new partnerships," said Karen Thompson, chief technologist at Kennedy. "NASA really is passionate about establishing external partners. It helps us do a better job with our development."

All of NASA's field centers have technology transfer programs that focus on their different specialties. The partnerships the agency has in mind fall roughly into two areas: businesses working closely with NASA scientists or resources to develop new technology benefitting spaceflight, and enterprises that adapt an existing NASA innovation into a marketable product for uses other than spaceflight.

Kennedy's Mike Lester, Research and Technology Partnership manager, said there are plenty of examples of each working out successfully. "We believe collaborating with Kennedy in research and technology can provide you with commercial advantages in the marketplace," Lester told the audience at a Cocoa Beach convention center near the Florida spaceport.

He noted several success stories, including a group of college students who worked with Kennedy on a class assignment to develop a hypothetical business case. "Did the students just turn in their assignment, get their grade and walk away?" Lester asked. "No. They formed a startup company called the Juntura Group and then immediately entered into partnership with Kennedy."

With the agreement, the company had exclusive rights to sell position sensors. They refined the technology to target specific audiences and began manufacturing and selling them. "If you're not a little jealous, you ought to be," Lester said.

As the event progressed, business specialists detailed how entrepreneurs and businesses can make their own success stories with partnerships, including using NASA grants to develop a business model and plans that apply to the agency's desired goals. The proposals are judged competitively on a number of factors.

"The heaviest weight is the technical and scientific merit," said Joni Richards, Technology Infusion manager at Kennedy. "What can really push them over the edge is the commercialization plans." The grant process, which has several stepping stones that increase awards as the work becomes more demanding and a product moves closer to realization.

Partnerships are expected to be an important aspect of many agency goals, including NASA's plans to capture an asteroid and have astronauts visit and collect samples from it, said Jason Kessler, the program executive for the Asteroid Grand Challenge. "The only way we can accelerate the work we're already doing is to bring in the broad community," Kessler said.

Prospects for businesses range from producing less expensive telescopes, for example, to engaging in new communications strategies to bring a vast number of diverse researchers together to learn more about the estimated one million asteroids that could threaten Earth.

The chances for commercial development are extensive as part of NASA's major efforts that involve the Florida space center, said Bob Cabana, Kennedy's director and a former space shuttle commander. Detailing Kennedy's role in the Space Launch System rocket, James Webb Space Telescope and science, supply and operation of the International Space Station, Cabana said business innovations are vital to fulfilling NASA's missions.

"I think we can share information and figure out what you need to do to be part of this exciting future on the Space Coast," Cabana said. "Even though we're a launch center, we also do a lot of technology development at KSC."

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