The Download: The NASA Field Trip
After a two-year-hiatus, The Download is back. The column will chronicle Washington's evolving tech scene and the people who make it tick. Kim Hart will write about Washington's tech scene every other Monday. Send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Kim Hart
From the outside, the model lunar habitat at NASA's Langley Research Center looks like a futuristic igloo. The inside looks more like a space-age dorm room equipped with a laptop, magazines and a tiny shower -- everything an astronaut would need for a trip to the moon.
Last week, a group of visiting business executives caught a glimpse of life in space as they climbed into the tiny room. The door slammed shut and the dome-like structure filled with pressurized air, causing the suit-clad guests' ears to pop.
They were impressed, almost as much as they were with the flight simulators and the world's largest wind tunnel they had seen earlier. They had no idea, they kept saying, that so much "cool stuff" was just 150 miles south of Washington.
That's the problem, said Josh Levi, vice president of policy for the Northern Virginia Technology Council, who helped arrange for a half-dozen executives from Beltway companies to tour NASA's facilities last week.
Many Washington area firms simply aren't aware of the high-tech opportunities here, he said. To them, Hampton might as well be as far away as, well, outer space.
"To a very large extent we live in a world where we're out of sight, out of mind," Levi said. "We have a very strong regional economy and relationships with the federal agencies we see every day. It's harder to lift our eyes a little to what's happening three hours south."
The trip's purpose was to foster relationships between the agency -- with its $17 billion budget -- and companies that might want a piece of its business. The Langley center already works with a number of Northern Virginia companies, including Orbital Sciences, Unisys, FiberTech and Luna Innovations, not to mention having contracts with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
Lesa B. Roe, Langley's director, said the center has created 10,000 jobs in Virginia and pumps $1.1 billion into the state's economy every year. But the bulk of contracts and partnerships are with companies in the Hampton area.
Roe said she wanted to make engineering and contracting firms to the north more aware of the technology available at Langley. "We have capabilities they can use," she said. "They need to know that their technology could have far greater reach than they ever dreamed."
It's the first time the Langley center has done this kind of outreach. NASA representatives maintain a fairly regular presence in Richmond, "but it makes more sense for them to see what we have here," Roe said.
Like the cryogenic wind tunnel, which creates wind speeds that easily exceed 800 miles per hour. It has been used by jet manufacturers to test the strength of aircrafts' material. Liquid nitrogen is used to condense air molecules to better mimic real-world air currents.
Using the massive tunnel comes at a steep price. To test its equipment in the facility, a company typically pays $4,200 an hour, and that doesn't include the cost of gasoline -- at a rate of $3,000 a minute -- and electricity. It takes one-eighth of a nuclear reactor's energy to run the tunnel's 135,000-horsepower engine.
To demonstrate how liquid nitrogen works, a NASA employee showed a few science experiments by shrinking a balloon and popping the lid off a tennis ball container.
"I feel like I'm back in high school," quipped Del. G. Glenn Oder (R-Newport News). Virginia legislators were also there for the center's inaugural General Assembly day.
Sparking an interest in science and math education was another purpose of the trip, said Duffy Mazan, a serial entrepreneur and chief executive of Arlington-based Performedia, which provides online video services to companies. Local companies can't find enough engineers to fill job openings.
"We're always looking for ways to load the educational pipeline with young people who are interested in science and technology," he said.
Getting companies acquainted with NASA's research is just as challenging as making sure investors and firms are aware of the innovation happening on college campuses, Mazan said.
"There's all kinds of research, some that could be commercialized," he said. "Companies could be funding that research to get intellectual property."
Del. John A. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake) said he was glad to see Washington area companies show an interest in the activity occurring in other parts of the state, adding that getting Northern Virginia firms involved elsewhere will benefit the entire state.
"Northern Virginia is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to tech," he said. "It's the template the rest of us are trying to replicate."
Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun) helped organize the General Assembly tour to educate lawmakers and businesses about NASA's capabilities. Owner of Sterling engineering firm EIT, May found out about the research happening in Hampton when he met a former NASA researcher on the job. He calls NASA "one of those out-in-the-open secrets."
The visit doesn't guarantee any partnerships will be made. Loren Burnett, chief executive of StackSafe, a Vienna company that tests IT software systems, said he didn't immediately see ways his firm could work with NASA.
"Overall I thought it was a very positive trip, but there weren't a great deal of specific business opportunities," he said.
Mazan, however, said he saw obvious ways a start-up could capitalize on NASA's research. At one point on the tour, he noticed a giant globe that doubled as a digital projector, made by Global Imagination, a firm in California.
"It wasn't a Virginia company," he said, "but it could just as easily have been a Virginia company."
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