Small Business In Space: On NASA Contracting The Little Guy

NASA has a history of contracting small businesses to develop future technologies, ensuring not just the big R&D companies have a stake in tomorrow.

In developing the technologies of tomorrow, companies with large research and development houses definitely have an advantage over smaller firms—the top 10 private contracts awarded by NASA last year went to multibillion dollar corporations like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.

But space programs and advanced aircraft aren't just rockets and sleek designs—they're also filtration systems and complex flight algorithms. It's in these small operational cracks that small businesses have a way into the future technology game, and NASA is encouraging competition. The Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBBIR/STTR) is NASA's official arm reaching out to engineering and technology-focused small businesses, hoping to extract more creative solutions from their tighter knit teams.

Measuring Small Animals in Space

After initially accepted—the program is also open to nonprofits— a company's proposal must then weather the gauntlet of three distinct phases: proving the proposal is feasible, developing and demonstrating its use, and finally commercializing and spreading its application.

It's not an easy trial, but that doesn't stop some interesting proposals from being considered. Founded in 1988 by three former colleagues, Orbital Technologies (ORBITEC) went from a home-run business to one the more successful small businesses to be contracted by NASA. In 2000, its Plant Research Unit made it past the third phase, allowing astronauts on the International Space Station to study long-term plant growth in a zero-gravity environment.

Based in Madison, Wisconsin, its latest proposal, called the Zero G Mass Measurement Device (ZGMMD), offers astronauts something NASA hadn't considered: measuring the mass of small, live specimens, including the possibility of animals. Targeting biomass under 2,000 grams (about 4.4 pounds), the ZGMMD innovation aims to help NASA's space biology program. Finishing its first phase, the ultimate goal is to get the device on board the International Space Station, where it will be used in tandem with the company's already-present Plant Research Unit.

Making Use of Waste

Waste is a big problem for lengthy space missions. It's estimated that a crew of four will have accumulated more than 8,600 pounds of food-related waste and another 5,200 pounds of discarded clothing and the like during a one-year mission. A manned mission to Mars could last between one to three years, according to NASA. That's a lot of time to generate waste and a lot of time to make use of it.

Every resource is precious in the vacuum of space, including waste. Aerodyne Research Inc. is a small, 66-employee R&D company, based in Billerica, Massachusetts, with a plan to process waste from space missions into hydrogen, water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide—for energy production and/or life support.

Called the Two-Stage Waste Gasification Reactor for Mars In-Situ Resource Utilization, the small company's proposal would turn found resources during space exploration, or in waste-heaps accumulated during such a journey, into material that can be used to further the mission, sparing the use of oxygen or water that could otherwise be committed to life support systems.

Making Future Aircraft a Little Less Flimsy

Modern, fixed-wing aircraft account for 10 percent of global transpiration-related oil use, and by 2050, it's estimated that global flights will contribute as much as 15 percent to all CO2 emissions.

Contracted by NASA, MUSYN Inc is a small business based in Minneapolis that developed a flight control system for future, lightweight, flexible aircraft that require less structure and less energy to operate. Though they save on fuel and material, flexible aircraft are more vulnerable to strong winds, requiring near-constant monitoring and control. MUSYN took charge of this dilemma by providing NASA a with a tool to help synthesize flight control algorithms in real time.

LPVTools proved to be so successful during trials that the system will be incorporated in the upcoming flight of NASA's Aeronautics' X-56A Multi Utility Technology Testbed (MUTT), a 7.5-foot-long, unmanned flexible aircraft with a 28-foot wingspan. Part of a joint venture with the Air Force Research Laboratory and Lockheed Martin, the aircraft represents a more sustainable future for aviation, a possibility made more sturdy thanks to a small business.

It's still a tough go for small businesses looking to work with NASA—historically, 35 to 40 percent of proposals awarded Phase I contracts push onto the next phase. But a stake in the future should be a tough venture and small businesses have shown they're up to a task often thought reserved for titans.

If you're a small business focused on technology and are interested, check out the requirements for NASA's SBIR and STTR programs here.

Photo via Flickr (cc) User NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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