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Space, Hollywood and Star Trek – The New Frontiers

The NASA Ames Research Centre at Moffett Field is a base for NASA scientists to develop new technologies for studying the earth and the Universe around us. But it also serves as a science park to attract technology companies whose work might be of interest to NASA in the future. The idea is that by bringing scientists close together physically they might be encouraged to share ideas which benefit them all.

NASA has long claimed its expertise in science helps both space exploration and more earthly pursuits. Since 1976, NASA has documented over 1,700 examples of technology transfer. Those patents have touched us all in unexpected ways. Take the camera on smartphones. The technology behind it was developed in California by NASA.

The chief technologist at NASA is Professor Mason Peck. He leads the effort to help communicate how space mission science can benefit the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.

What is striking about two of the most important conversations I had at NASA was how linked the people and the real inventions are with the world of television, Hollywood and sheer fantasy. When I asked Mason Peck how he got his inspiration he said:

“I’ve always been a big fan of Arthur C Clarke…I think he’s a visionary, not just of what technology could bring us, in terms of solutions, but also the human dimension.”’

As for the technologies themselves, Peck says “What we’re moving toward now at NASA is technologies that will enable much safer, much greener and much more cost-effective air travel”.

Personally I think the next big technology that will change life in the way the Internet did is 3D printing. I never thought of the 3D printer as a space technology, although it is fast becoming one. Peck tells me: “one of the concepts that we’re working on at NASA that will completely change how we do space exploration, if they’re successful is using 3D printers to build structures on the moon out of the dirt and earth found on the moon. It could be a game changing technology.”

Peck is not the only one who took his inspiration from the world of Science Fiction.

Walter de Brouwer is the co-founder, of Scanadu. He heads up a team who by combining mobile phone and medical sensor technology have created a home diagnostic tool they’ve called Scout. As a child he watched the movie Star Trek and was moved by the handheld devices they used to check vital health signs. That gizmo was the Tricorder. As an adult he went out and built one for real.

De Brouwer holds the Scanadu to his head, presses a button, and downloads five vital statistics to his smart phone app. He thinks the product could be on the market very soon and used by future spacemen as a doctor in their pocket.

This is an odd world in which leading scientists achieve as adults what inspired them in films when they were young. In turn that inspires writers to create new films which in turn inspires future scientists to achieve what we thought was only possible in the world of movies.

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