The Profit Mission

Here's a tag you don't see much, but should: "Made in Outer Space." Thanks to the commercial minds inside NASA, many of Earth's consumer goods have distant origins in the U.S. space program. There's Zen perfume from Shiseido, derived from a 1998 shuttle experiment that found that a rose's scent changes outside the atmosphere. There are shock-resistant shoes--made by Modellista--that use a special foam of NASA origin. And Berlei's Shock Absorber sports bra claimed (accurately) in an ad featuring tennis bombshell Anna Kournikova that it was made with NASA technology.

All good fun. But in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, the value of commercial research on missions has come into question. STS-107--the final flight of the Columbia--had 80 experiments on board, including five that were conducted by the astronauts for private companies, funded almost entirely by NASA. One was for International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), which extracted the smell of a rose in space and was back seeking new scents. The other commercial experiments involved studies of ways to fight fire using fine water mist, grow proteins with greater resilience to disease, manufacture crystals for such uses as hydrogen fuel storage and advance cancer-cell research. Is all this worth pursuing in space? The Bush administration doesn't think so: even before the Columbia went down, it had announced unspecified cuts in NASA's product-development program, even as it raised the agency's overall budget to $15.5 billion. The 2004 proposal deemed the commercial program purely "promotional."

NASA cites the societal benefits of commercial spinoffs when justifying the cost of manned space flight, now about $500 million per shuttle mission. The idea of searching for profit in space originally came from Congress, which created a program to transfer NASA technology to the private sector back in 1962. That evolved into NASA's Space Product Development Program, which now works with more than 160 companies, including the likes of Ford and Hewlett-Packard. Since 1976 NASA has heralded more than 1,300 examples of "successfully commercialized technology" in an annual magazine called Spinoff. Space enthusiasts claim spinoffs earn a sixfold return on the cost of shuttle flights, a claim even a NASA spokesperson says he could not confirm.

The truth is that the economic boost from spinoffs is untraceable. The Berlei bra, for instance, uses a DuPont material called CoolMax, which was derived from a fabric developed to improve thermal clothing by Outlast Technologies in collaboration with NASA's Johnson Space Center. The proportion of Berlei bra sales accurately described as a NASA "spinoff" is anyone's guess, but critics say returns can't even come close to covering the cost of a shuttle flight.

It is easy enough to spoof manned missions that explore space perfume or the insulation used in race cars on the NASCAR circuit. It's harder to dismiss space-based innovations like the MicroMed DeBakey VAD heart pump, or the Lifesaving Light, a novel treatment for brain tumors. Lance Bush, NASA's International Space Station commercial development manager, says this "isn't about NASA" or promoting its missions--the point is simply to make its resources "available to the broadest part of the public." Industry now pays $50 million of the $5 billion annual cost of the manned program. Let the private sector "worry about the profits," he says.

The problem is that companies don't worry about profits either, if NASA foots nearly all the costs. IFF declines to discuss its costs for the space rose experiments. MicroCool general manager Mike Lemche says its share of the costs to study firefighting mist on the Columbia was "too little to count." And this is a $2 million company that isn't even in the firefighting business yet. Lemche admits the lure of entering the billion-dollar fire-prevention industry through NASA-funded research was too good to pass up. Who wouldn't take a free ride in space? The question for NASA is whether these space ventures make sense if they don't make money. The answer is probably not, when there are lives at risk.