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NASA Center Reaches Out Across the Miles to Area Firms

By Kim Hart
Monday, October 13, 2008


From the outside, the model lunar habitat at NASA's Langley Research Center looks like a futuristic igloo. The inside looks more like a space-age dorm room equipped with a laptop, magazines and a tiny shower -- everything an astronaut would need for a trip to the moon.

Last week, a group of visiting business executives caught a glimpse of life in space as they climbed into the tiny room. The door slammed shut and the dome-like structure filled with pressurized air, causing the suit-clad guests' ears to pop.

They were impressed, almost as much as they were with the flight simulators and the world's largest wind tunnel they had seen earlier. They had no idea, they kept saying, that so much "cool stuff" was just 150 miles south of Washington.

That's the problem, said Josh Levi, vice president of policy for the Northern Virginia Technology Council, who helped arrange for a half-dozen executives from Beltway companies to tour NASA's facilities last week.

Many Washington area firms simply aren't aware of the high-tech opportunities here, he said. To them, Hampton might as well be as far away as, well, outer space.

"To a very large extent we live in a world where we're out of sight, out of mind," Levi said. "We have a very strong regional economy and relationships with the federal agencies we see every day. It's harder to lift our eyes a little to what's happening three hours south."

The trip's purpose was to foster relationships between the agency -- with its $17 billion budget -- and companies that might want a piece of its business. The Langley center already works with a number of Northern Virginia companies, including Orbital Sciences, Unisys, FiberTech and Luna Innovations, not to mention having contracts with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

Lesa B. Roe, Langley's director, said the center has created 10,000 jobs in Virginia and pumps $1.1 billion into the state's economy every year. But the bulk of contracts and partnerships are with companies in the Hampton area.

Roe said she wanted to make engineering and contracting firms to the north more aware of the technology available at Langley. "We have capabilities they can use," she said. "They need to know that their technology could have far greater reach than they ever dreamed."

It's the first time the Langley center has done this kind of outreach. NASA representatives maintain a fairly regular presence in Richmond, "but it makes more sense for them to see what we have here," Roe said.

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