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Jun 12

NASA Spinoff Technology: More Than Meets the Eye


I’m kind of late on the uptake on this one, but this past spring NASA put together a competition to encourage 3rd through 8th graders to study how space-science research affects their daily lives.  For the competition kids studied examples from NASA’s Spinoff program (see the grown-up version here—great stuff for people interested in tech transfer, especially the annual report) and then made short videos explaining how a NASA-developed technology has found wider use.

Before I come down all curmudgeonly on this (and then hopefully redeem myself), do understand that I absolutely love the enthusiasm this contest generated. Look at how much fun everyone had at the awards ceremony! That’s fantastic!

But… But… Naming the award after Optimus Prime? Seriously? Seriously?! I mean the Michael Bay Transformer movies aren’t just dumb… they’re ferociously dumb. I died a little inside when Transformers 2 became the top grossing film of 2009… a movie that Michael Bay himself has himself described as.. um… poo.

So why name the award after Optimus Prime? NASA explained their choice as follows:

OPTIMUS PRIME began in space and transformed itself in order to come to Earth; OPTIMUS PRIME goes undetected and helps people while protecting them. Similarly, NASA technologies, though designed for space applications, are often modified and transformed to go into everyday products used on Earth; they often go undetected and often help people.

OK, as metaphors go, I’ve read better.

But it brought to mind something.

When I was a kid, I loved Transformers. The cartoon was in syndication and in my neighborhood it aired on Sunday mornings. My parents weren’t thrilled about me commandeering the family VCR every Saturday night to tape cartoons while we were at church. They respected, though, that it was something that interested me. (And there was a tech-transfer benefit! I became the first person in our family capable of programming that monstrous VCR.)

And now, nearly three decades later, my seven-year-old nephew loves Transformers. Last time I visited home, he spent hours showing me the new generation of toys. (And holy cripes are they complicated!) What I realize now is that this award isn’t about exciting my interest in science; it’s about fostering his. He loves gigantic imaginary space robots that turn into cars. It’s probably not a coincidence that, aside from Transformers, my nephew is also crazy about science and is, in point of fact, having a science-themed birthday party today. If NASA wants to tap into that enthusiasm… well good on them.