The space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to blast off this month, the first shuttle launch planned since the Columbia disaster two years ago. Predictably, Boeing and Lockheed Martin landed contracts for the mission dubbed "Return to Flight." But so did a little-known private company called QuVIS, based in Topeka, Kansas.

A newcomer to the space race, the 11-year-old firm has developed technology that quickly transmits digital pictures without the blurring that typically plagues compressed images at high resolution. So far, it's been used only on earth. Filmmakers use the system to spot and remove unwanted specks from actors' complexions, and theme parks use it to create special effects for roller coaster rides. NASA will deploy a version of the system that uses more than a hundred cameras (including two mounted in the nose of WB-57 airplanes) to capture images and video of the shuttle during the launch. This will allow NASA to beam images to analysis labs much faster than before and with less distortion. The goal, of course, is to prevent another Columbia situation. That tragedy might have been avoided if NASA had been aware of the severity of damage done to the shuttle during takeoff.

So how did an entertainment company make the jump to hyperspace? It's been QuVIS' goal to land government work since the company opened its doors. Salespeople kept tabs on projects for years, and from time to time would arrange for project managers and NASA engineers to talk shop. Eventually, NASA decided to give the 40-person company a shot -- but not before putting QuVIS servers and recorders through 18 months of testing.

The project is worth as much as $2 million to QuVis, but more important, it should make it easier for the company to secure government work in the future. Indeed, QuVIS is hotly pursuing a defense contract, according to Jim Graham, vice president of sales and marketing. Landing another deal now is important, given that NASA is phasing out the shuttle in 2010.

For QuVIS, the NASA gig has been a learning process. Government procurers are less finicky than entertainment folks, Graham says, and require a lot less schmoozing. "You take someone out to dinner in L.A., and you pick up the bill and there's a couple of weeks for the kids in college," he jokes. "Because government rules are so strict, you find yourself trying not to go to McDonald's with them."