Entrepreneurs tangling with sticky technical quandaries should consider that famous catch phrase, "Houston, we have a problem." That's because a relatively new NASA outreach program offers small companies up to 40 hours of free high-tech and engineering advice. The agency's Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program began as a state-run aid project in Florida in 1995. It went national in 2001 and now receives $3.3 million a year in funding. NASA estimates that its total economic impact to date is $134 million.
One recent beneficiary was Bill Graham, chief engineer at Winslow LifeRaft in Lake Suzy, Fla., who was unable to devise a way to speed up the curing process for the adhesives used on his company's life rafts. It took at least a week for the cement glue to dry, though Winslow's biggest clients -- high-end corporate jet manufacturers like Gulfstream -- sometimes needed new rafts within days.
Graham contacted NASA's outreach program, which put him in touch with a Boeing engineer who realized that the glue he was using could be heat-cured instead of air-cured -- a process that actually strengthened the bond and reduced production time to just about two days.
The program's director, Paul Secor, says he has received 2,000 one-page request forms since its founding, and that NASA's engineers have effectively "solved" 1,400 of them. Of course, not all requests are actually considered. "We try to take everything seriously," Secor says. But what do you do with a request for a perpetual motion machine? "Sometimes we have to be the bubble burster," he adds dryly. To request assistance, go to www.spacetechsolutions.com.