1999 Conference Proceedings

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Rachel Zimmerman
Dougal Maclise
Denice Helwig
Dani Goldwater

NASA Ames Research Center
Mail Stop 213-2, Moffett Field, California,
USA 94035-1000


The majority of the global population can see, hear, walk, and talk without difficulty. The world is full of challenges for people who cannot take these abilities for granted. By using assistive devices, many people can overcome the obstacles which greet them daily. The potential for improving the quality of life for disabled people is dependent upon the resources available to assistive technology developers. Financial restrictions, limited market share, and insufficient technical support are factors which limit the number of new assistive devices developed. What is required is a source of talented, dedicated professionals who are willing to put for the effort required to design new technology, coupled with the financial resources to bring these designs to reality.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Amended Space Act of 1958 mandates that the agency apply its unique resources to the development and demonstration of programs designed to alleviate and minimize the effects of disability. Many talented NASA engineers and researchers are interested in providing their services for the benefit of humanity. As of May 20, 1998, a Space Act Agreement between Ames and Tetra has been in place to allow them to do this.

The Tetra Society of North America is an organization which will provide a channel of communication between NASA personnel and disabled clients who require custom-made assistive devices. The primary focus of the Ames/Tetra project is to facilitate assistive technology development by NASA engineers and technicians.


The International Space University in Strasbourg, France provides internship opportunities to its Master of Space Studies students to pursue individual research in a space-related field. One such internship was conducted at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. The project involved the establishment of an innovative assistive technology development program, whereby NASA engineers would use their skills to create custom assistive devices for disabled members of their community.

The Tetra Society of North America is a network of local organizations of engineers who volunteer their time to design, build, and test custom assistive devices. Tetra's clients include people who have a wide range of disabilities such as vision impairment, spinal cord injury, hearing loss, and communication or mobility problems. In partnership with Tetra, NASA Ames has recently launched an innovative pilot initiative that extends NASA technology and expertise to the disabled community. Many Ames engineers, technicians, and other staff have already expressed an interest in volunteering their efforts to build or customize devices for the disabled. The Ames/Tetra project matches NASA staff expertise and technologies with the needs of disabled clients so that they can develop solutions to some of the barriers to everyday living.

This program has the potential to make a tremendous impact on the lives of people with disabilities, increasing their independence.

The program is mutually beneficial to NASA and the disabled community. Benefits to NASA include new patents, community goodwill for NASA, improved employee morale, and technology infusion for NASA missions resulting from partnerships with other public or private sector organizations that want to help the disabled. Another major benefit to NASA is the increased awareness of currently available assistive technology. This year, the International Space Station is being constructed in Earth's orbit. Assistive technology could be used to help astronauts adapt to a zero-gravity environment, or during astronauts' recovery upon return to Earth after a four-month mission.


The overall objective of the Ames/Tetra project is to develop quick, innovative solutions to improve the lives of people with disabilities. In order to achieve this goal, the NASA Ames/Tetra project has four primary objectives:


This project continues the long-standing NASA Ames tradition of technology assistance to the disabled. Previous Ames projects in this field include aiding people who have multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, visual impairments, and autonomic dysfunction. It fulfills a Congressional mandate to NASA (USC Sec. 2451(g)) that "the general welfare of the U.S. requires that the unique competence of the NASA in science and engineering systems be directed to assisting in bioengineering research, development, and demonstration programs designed to alleviate and minimize the effects of disability." It also fulfils NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin's call for NASA to be "relevant to the people" and to provide a return on taxpayer investment.

Consistent with NASA's technology transfer goals, this pilot project disseminates NASA/Ames technology and expertise to the external community for humanitarian and potential economic purposes. It promotes commercialization via external partnerships, new products, new patents, and possible new small business start-ups identified by review of the Ames Technology Commercialization Center. This project also supports the newly invigorated national push for volunteerism by the White House and others (for example Colin Powell's America's Promise, President Bush's Thousand Points of Light). This pilot project may provide a model of volunteer outreach for NASA and possibly other federal labs.


The symbiotic relationship between Ames and Tetra has the potential to generate many assistive devices to help disabled individuals, while Ames' Commercial Technology Office can help secure patents for NASA on any new technology which is developed.

The philosophy of the Tetra Society is: "At Tetra, we don't make it easy, we just make it possible." If even a single assistive device is developed to help someone overcome obstacles to everyday activities, the Ames/Tetra project will have been a worthwhile endeavor.

(C) 1998 Rachel Zimmerman

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