Its scientists have watched the heavens for more than 60 years, but these days the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge is itself a star.
Millions of Web surfers are monitoring the progress of the Mars Sojourner, the small rover vehicle that touched down on the red planet July 4, while CNN and other media outlets are providing blow-by-blow coverage of the Mars Pathfinder mission.
For JPL, which has suffered budget cuts and job losses in recent years, the timing couldn't be better.
The publicity surrounding the Martian expedition has resulted in a burst of activity at the facility's Technology Affiliates Program offices, which licenses JPL's creations and contraptions to industry.
In addition, the success of the mission could pay dividends during budget appropriation time.
"In the scheme of how Congress works with its budget process, the popularity of this mission will be noticed," said Merton Davies, a space projects researcher at RAND and a member of planetary imaging teams on several JPL space missions.
"I think the success of this mission gave a boost to NASA and JPL, but what that may mean in concrete terms, it's too early to tell," he added.
But it's not too soon to gauge the impact of the Sojourner on private licensing agreements, which is emerging as a relatively small but profitable sideline for the space exploration lab.
"I've been incredibly deluged with calls from people wanting to do something with the Sojourner," said Joan Horvath, Business Alliances Manager of the Technical Affiliates Program. "People want to make Sojourner T-shirts and hats and other things. But what's good is that this pulse has aroused a lot of interest for our other technology."
Usually, the "Tech Transfer" offices receive a phone inquiry every one or two or three days, Horvath said. Because the office also hooks up companies with JPL scientists to conduct research for them, most of the calls typically pertain to how JPL's technology can be used to tackle a company's problem or incorporated in a product.
But since the July 4 Mars touchdown, a dozen companies and entrepreneurs have called each day with ideas for products linked to the Pathfinder mission or other space technology.
Most are hoping for the kind of response that Mattel Inc. has had with its Hot Wheels JPL Sojourner Mars Rover Action Pack. It's a mini version of the lander and rover vehicle, complete with its six rock-skipping locomotive wheels.
"The Mars Rovers have been mostly unavailable lately and we've speeded up distribution," said Sara Rosales, a Mattel spokeswoman.
The toy, launched last May, was sold out at several Los Angeles toy stores last week.
Rosales said the Sojourners originally had been shipped to toy stores in crates along with seven other "themed" Hot Wheels models in the Action Pack series, such as police and beach patrol packages. But now the company has begun shipping those crates exclusively with Sojourner packs until demand slows down. Mattel declined to release any sales figures or statistics on the Sojourner toy.
Horvath said that Mattel has a contract with the JPL to be the only producer of Sojourner-related toys. Other than the T-shirts and hats, the types of products companies have been proposing cannot be discussed.
However, the Technology Affiliates office has pamphlet information describing the technology developed for and used in the mission and includes suggestions on potential commercial uses. Little of what is included in the pamphlets lends itself to pop culture like the Hot Wheels.
For example, a piece of literature on the Mars Rover touts its "high performance mobility," that can be applied to "wheelchairs, off-road vehicles, bulldozers, hillside brush clearing machines and hazbots (robots for dealing with hazardous materials)."
The patent licensings and research contracts from industry brought in about $800,000 to last year's JPL budget, which is a relative drop in its $1 billion 1996 budget, according to Merle McKenzie, manager of the Commercial Technology Program.
She noted that all JPL-generated patents become the property of the California Institute of Technology, which founded the facility in the late 1930s and which was later taken over by NASA but left under the university's management.
Nonetheless, JPL officials believe the private licensing of technology is a key ingredient for the lab's future. Last January, officials announced plans to eliminate 1,600 jobs at JPL over the next three years as part of a NASA belt-tightening plan. By licensing its technology to private industry and developing other commercial alliances, JPL officials hope to develop new revenue sources to cushion the blow of federal cutbacks.
McKenzie, however, said the main point of the program is not to make money but to make JPL's technology available to U.S. companies and thereby help the country's economy. This is in accordance with the 1958 NASA Space Act, she said, which called for the agency to make its technological discoveries accessible to the nation's companies.
Not only does JPL license the patents it generates for adaptation to products, it contracts out the services of its scientists to companies to attack their high-tech problems.
It also enters into joint research projects where a company works in tandem with JPL scientists. In these arrangements where both sides benefit from the research, no fee money changes hands.
One such arrangement was between JPL and the California Film Commission. The Los Angeles-based commission, which is a state agency, worked with JPL scientists for three years on a computer catalog system for its library of 300,000 images and accompanying information on sites available for shooting movies in California.
"What we've had was a room of binders full of photos and information about shooting sites around California," said Patti Stolkin Archuletta, the commission's director. "Now we have a system to catalog the images and information using the same technology they are using right now to send those wonderful images back from Mars."
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