Health & Science

Offshore Oil And Gas Services Company Is Also A NASA Contractor

During a recent visit to Houston, NASA officials from D.C. focused on the importance of developing new technologies for the space program. KUHF Health and Science reporter Carrie Feibel accompanied them on a tour of a NASA contractor that applies oil and gas technology in outer space.

Oceaneering is mostly an oil and gas company, with a focus on offshore technology like underwater robots and well control.

But it’s taken that expertise into a number of areas, including submarines, entertainment equipment like animated rides, and outer space.

Vice President Michael Bloomfield says what ties it all together is extreme environments.

“We like to think of ourselves of building hardware that can be used in a harsh environment, and as you know space is a harsh environment. So that’s what our specialty is.”

Oceaneering began getting NASA contracts in 1978, and has received about $1 billion from the agency since that time.

Mason Peck is chief technologist for NASA.

“Oceaneering has been a great partner for NASA over a number of years. They’ve had a number of technical successes. It’s been a lot of work in spacesuits, in thermal protection systems.”

Oceaneering created tools now being used on the International Space Station, like a pistol-grip space screwdriver. It also built the Robonaut, an experimental robot with a human shape. It’s now being tested on board the space station.

Again, Oceaneering’s Vice President Michael Bloomfield:

“So wherever we’re going to go, I mean beyond low-earth orbit is going to require that the equipment be very robust. To make sure it’s very robust you want to test it in a similar environment and the environment that you can test it on is the International Space Station.”

Many of the NASA projects eventually get spun off into the private market.

For example, Oceaneering developed a robotic device for handling crystals in space for biological research.

It’s now marketing that to pharmaceutical companies.

Mason Peck says the economic impacts of NASA contracts can be huge.

“I guess it’s important for folks to remember that when we spend money on the space program, we don’t spend that in space. We spend it here on the ground.”

Oceaneering employs about 250 people in space research in the Houston area. 

Peck says the eventual spin-offs could also create jobs at other companies, either here or nationally.

“So what we’re talking about here is technology transfer. It’s the mechanism by which NASA shares with the public this taxpayer-funded research and development in technology.”

Oceaneering is now working on technologies for the future, like ceramic fabrics that can be used as heat shields. And it’s working on the next generation of space suits, that might be used for a long trip to Mars.

From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.