Holding off panic, Moody pulled the car over and found the highest technology available—a water hose—and soaked her nephew until his body temperature returned to normal. Her quick thinking and the water hose probably saved Stevie's life, but in the aftermath, still shaken, she remembers thinking to herself, "If the government can put a man on the moon, surely they can do something to help Stevie."
Fortunately, others before her had the same thought. Showing uncommon initiative, she decided to phone the government—specifically, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA—and cut immediately through the federal bureaucracy to the agency's Technology Transfer and Commercialization Program. This office was created specifically to contemplate Moody's "If-the-government-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon" question—that is, to think about and promote Earth-bound uses for space-age technologies.
In this case the answer was easy: Yes, the government could help Stevie. NASA scientists adapted cooling technologies developed for the space suits of Apollo mission astronauts to make a cooling vest that kept Stevie's internal organs—and thus the rest of his body—from overheating. That first vest led to the creation of the HED Foundation—headed up by Moody—which has in the years since put more than 650 vests in the hands of people who, like Stevie, suffer from cooling malfunctions.
The foundation has also acted as a go-between for NASA and people suffering from rare skin disorders so severe that the victims blister in the sunlight and often are required to remain indoors, going outside only at night. With "space suits" modeled on the Apollo astronauts' familiar apparel, Moody says proudly, more than 40 people today have been able to leave their homes and venture out into the sunlight for the first time.
This is precisely the way—or at least one of the ways—that NASA's tech transfer program is supposed to work, and it's been part of the space program's mission since its inception in 1958. That mandate—to share technologies developed for space exploration with private business and nonprofits—has been made more and more explicit over the years, and has been given special focus under the leadership of current NASA administrator Daniel Goldin.
Indeed, in 1994 Goldin inaugurated a new policy called "Agenda for Change," which deliberately moved the space agency away from typical government-style practices like the use of contracts, and toward more flexible, business-friendly partnerships. With this philosophy, NASA can do basically anything that private industry might do—sharing of resources and facilities, collaborations among scientists and engineers, and so forth—to leverage the tax dollars spent on space into unanticipated public benefits.
As much as Americans are affected daily by these advances in health, communications, and public safety, the NASA spinoffs they probably notice most are those found around the home. For example, that cordless drill or Dustbuster probably wouldn't exist were it not for the Apollo moon mission, which required among other things a lightweight, battery-powered drill to collect core samples. And it was NASA that first insisted on smoke and fire detectors for its Skylab; the devices are now required by law in all new homes. Home insulation, Ray-Ban sunglasses, swimming suits, infant formula, and, of course, Tang all derive indirectly from our yearning to explore the heavens.
Wray Herbert is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.