NASA? We Have a Problem

While many spinoffs continue with NASA engineers founding their own lucrative companies, some of the greatest side benefits of the space program work in the opposite direction. NASA contracts with private companies to invent solutions to aerospace problems; the companies in turn figure out other, profitable ways to use their inventions. The Goddard Space Flight Center had one such problem when it came time to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993. Hubble had launched in 1990 at a cost of $2.5 billion, and astronomers had high hopes for unprecedented images of deep space. But when the telescope deployed, they discovered to their dismay that a construction error had left the mirror slightly misshapen, rendering the images distorted and blurry. NASA needed a precise way to detect defects so that properly measured replacement parts could fix the scope. Goddard sent out a call to optics companies, and Massachusetts-based AOA Xinetics won the bid with a detection tool. Xinetics, now owned by aerospace giant Northrop Grumman, went on to create a commercial 3D imaging detection device bought by FedEx, UPS, and just about every other major package shipper.