Rocket Science

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2004

Finding the source of moisture and mildew may not be as exciting as blasting into space, but the two have more in common than may be obvious. Thanks to a program called SATOP, or Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program, small businesses everywhere can take advantage of space technology to solve technical problems-for free.

With $6 million from NASA over a two-year period, SATOP can provide up to 40 free hours of technical experience to clients. SATOP is a network of private corporations, research institutions and NASA centers, including the University of Central Florida, Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed Martin, the Boeing Company, United Space Alliance, Eastman Kodak & Co., Los Alamos National Laboratory, Kennedy Space Center and Syracuse University. Sarasota, which is a SATOP partner, is a national leader in using the program; Sunguard Shade Structures, Winsulator, Creative Crystals and Aladdin Equipment Company have taken advantage of SATOP's engineers.

Paige Hartmann, owner of Sarasota's Siesta Key Suites hotel, heard about SATOP through the Siesta Key Chamber Web site (the chamber is also a SATOP partner) and e-mailed the network for help with a moisture problem at the Ringling Beach house, a1926 property she had renovated. SATOP replied immediately, she says, to let her know that her problem had been circulated to a pool of partner engineers to see if someone could tackle her problem.

John Dillon of AJT & Associates contacted her, asking for blueprints of the building. The two exchanged e-mails and conference calls, and Dillon even talked to the contractor who handled the renovations. Hartmann was amazed when Dillon and a partner arrived on Siesta Key to conduct site experiments and take photographs. The next thing she knew, she had a report in her hands telling her exactly what to do to fix her problem.

"All the way through, I kept saying, 'are you sure this is free?'" she says. "And they kept reassuring me that yes, it was."

At the four SATOP centers in Titusville, Fla., Houston, Texas; Santa Fe, N.M., and Syracuse, N.Y., more than 2,000 such requests have been processed and 1,400 resolutions found. Secor says businesses consult SATOP about everything from electrical to structural issues. Most requests, says SATOP literature, are resolved within 90 days by the engineers.

"They buy into the theory that it's a way to give something back and win over proponents for the space program," says Secor. "And it's a good professional development tool for engineers. They get to go outside the box, work on something different and see the results quickly."

Secor spreads the word about SATOP by visiting chambers of commerce and economic development centers. So far, he says, SATOP has created 219 jobs and contributed $134 million of economic impact from cost savings, new sales and capital investments.

Hartmann admits that some of the solutions the engineers offered her would have been too far costly to implement; but others, she says, were surprisingly easy and practical, involving sealing techniques to eliminate the environment for mold and condensation.

"Here in the hospitality industry, I never thought in my wildest dreams that NASA engineers would be able to help me," she says.

For information about SATOP, or to fill out a request for technical assistance (RTA), visit the organization's Web site at

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