Space program spinoffs Growth: More than a few high-technology ventures and thousands of new jobs can trace their origins to space exploration.

September 30, 1996|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

When NASA astronaut Dr. Daniel Barry delivers a speech tonight in Baltimore about the private commercial spinoffs and educational promise of the space program, he'll be preaching to more than a few believers.

Among the throng of high-technology company executives gathering at the Greater Baltimore Committee's annual trade show and dinner to kick off its event-oriented High-Tech Month will be Joseph Fuller Jr., a former career employee and engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In 1986, Fuller formed his own consulting firm to help companies and government agencies manage the risk, complexity and rapidly changing nature of high-technology.

Today, the Bethesda company Fuller founded, Futron Corp., employs 100 people and has revenues of more than $8 million.

It is one of more than 20 firms in the booming high-tech corridor between Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia that were founded either as spinoffs from NASA's space technology or to serve research projects and other needs at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Nationwide the number of commercial spinoffs is even greater, of course. According to a study done for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, more than 260 firms have been formed based on space-related technologies and 352,000 private-sector jobs have been created.

Sales of products derived from space technology -- from shock-absorbing sports helmets to miniaturized medical pumps -- totaled $22 billion last year, the study found.

Locally, companies range from Spacehab Inc, a $91 million publicly held Vienna, Va.-based company that provides and operates modules for space-based research, to the somewhat lesser known Sunmark Preceptor Golf Inc., a Laurel venture that is developing an electronic directional device to sharpen golf swings. That technology is based on instrumentation developed NASA for Skylab.

Other jobs have been created through research ventures with companies and educational institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University's partnership with NASA to conduct research on data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Meanwhile, some of the companies formed regionally, like Futron and Spacehab, are on a fast-growth track.

For example, Spacehab's revenues grew to $56 million this year from $43 million in 1994 and its profits jumped to $30 million from $9 million in the same period.

Meanwhile, Fuller expects Futron to one day be a $50 million company with 700 employees, its growth fueled by increasing demand for outside expertise by high-tech-oriented clients like the Defense and Transportation departments, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Columbia-based Martek Biosciences.

The amiable executive doubts, though, that he'd have had either the vision to start Futron or the breadth of experience in managing high-technology that he needed had he not worked for NASA.

"The advantage of the space program is the diversity of experience I got managing high-technology and understanding its impact on a complex organization," Fuller said.

"My experience in the program gave me the ability to really understand the problems other organizations are increasingly faced with by high technology and coming up with innovative solutions," he said.

Meanwhile, Barry, who flew a nine-day space mission in January during which he assessed tools that might be used to build an international space station, noted that NASA innovations devised solve the challenges of space travel and exploration have provided the most fodder for commercial and contract research spinoffs that spawn jobs.

For example, Barry said, today's ubiquitous personal computer is largely due to NASA engineers being confronted with a daunting task in the 1960s.

"Desktop computers are largely the result of NASA's engineers having to figure out how to get a big machine that could handle a lot of complex tasks into the payload that was light, compact and not very power-hungry," Barry said.

"What they came up with was integrated circuits, which has resulted in an entire revolution in computing. Essentially, a new private industry was created," he said.

Stay tuned for more such innovations.

Under Daniel Goldin, NASA's administrator, the trimmed-back agency has embarked on a focused effort to form research partnerships with private industry to develop breakthrough technologies with possible commercial applications.

Hot high-tech fields for this endeavor include robotics, artificial intelligence, and satellite remote sensing for gathering agricultural and environmental data.

The space-bullish Barry says, "Continuing to push into space is important to our economy, but it's also important to our society.

"History shows us that societies which stop exploring don't last long."

GBC Tech Month events

Wednesday

Internet opportunity seminar, 8: 30 a.m., Renaissance Harborplace, 202 E. Pratt St. Topics: Intranets, advanced technologies, browser technologies, and implementation issues. Free but reservations required. Call 1 (800) 622-4786.

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