Solving challenging engine problems for NASA directly led one company to improve its coal gasification technology on the ground, an executive says.

John Vilja, a vice president for Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, says the extreme challenge of manned space missions drives terrestrial achievement as well. “We force ourselves into multidisciplinary advancement, which in turn enables new solutions to some of our toughest challenges here on Earth,” he told a House Science subcommittee hearing July 12.

The company’s improved coal gasification uses 30% less water, cuts capital and product costs and reduces emissions. Plus, the technology isn’t picky about coal blends.

Pratt & Whitney has partnered with the Energy Department, ExxonMobil and Alberta Innovates to develop the product for market. The diversification of technologies and customers benefits its launch engine customers, Vilja says, by spreading fixed costs over a larger market base.

All this, Vilja told the committee, came from working with NASA. “There is no commercial analog to push such investment since the term of any payback is not clearly understood at the start of the projects.”

Richard Aubrecht, a vice president at Moog Inc., told the committee: “The manned space programs all have really hard problem statements,” using the wording familiar to engineers. The mission demands extend previous technology limits and companies put their best talent to work on NASA projects. As a result, Aubrecht says, companies working with NASA achieve new technical capabilities.

“This NASA model is an example where a federal investment in technology development has an enormous impact on the overall economy,” he says.

As for policy issues Congress should address to keep the good results rolling, Aubrecht says funding needs to be steady so NASA can keeping paying primes and subcontractors, ensuring projects have stability and continuity. NASA’s “start/stop” history is a major impediment to success.