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When NASA tried to solve for {NYC}

In the 1970s, NASA sent over technocrats to transfer technology, that put men on the moon, to fix New York City.

A year ago, as I was researching historical innovations in street maintenance using the New York Times’ Times Machine, I stumbled upon a story, that on first glance looked like an April 1 news prank.

via NYTIMES’ Times Machine, Oct 13, 1973

Here’s how John Darnton starts this story:

Tucked away in a cubicle office on the 11th floor of a Municipal Building, Abe Karen spins futuristic fantasies about a space-age city.

He sees laser beams homing in on polluting smoke-stacks. He envisions subway cars and statues protected by a coating, that as if by magic, repels graffiti.

He sees firemen, called to a burning building by an early-warning system, able to see and breathe inside murky, smoke-filled rooms, and he pictures road crews repairing potholes in the streets as easily as if they were pouring maple syrup over a stack of flapjacks. The city, of course, is New York, and the space age, after all, has arrived.

It is Fall 1972, just before the 17th and last Apollo mission to the moon, and shortly before the completion of the World Trade Center towers— NASA responds to Mayor John Lindsay’s challenge, and endeavors to come to the aid of New York City, at the time, reaching new heights of urban decay.

The World Trade Center Towers opened in April 1973 via The National Archives.
Apollo 17, Final Crewed Mission to the Moon, Launches — Dec. 7, 1972, via NASA.

A decade after JFK appealed to the American public to organize their skills and energies to take men to an asteroid riddled moon, these agents of Arthurian lore descended from their lofty perches to identify and organize NASA’s energies to, amongst the other hard things, getting the homeless off pothole-riddled streets.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too”. — President John F. Kennedy, Rice University, September 12, 1962

The classic rapid prototyping scene, Square Peg / Round Hole — Apollo 13

The NASA/New York City Applications Project was a collaboration between NASA’s Office of Technology Utilization and New York City’s Budget Department. Conceived by Mayor John Lindsay when he challenged NASA to provide tech. solutions to counter New York’s drug epidemic and curiously, truck hijackings!?

The NASA-NYCAP involved appointing a few “technology-transfer agents” whose primary role was to match major city problems with existing NASA technology. These problems were identified and defined along with city officials and described in a short Problem Statement which included a description of:

  • The need as defined by city officials,
  • Historical background of the problem,
  • Constraints and specifications applicable to potential solutions,
  • Prior technology and its shortcomings.

This statement would then be circulated among NASA field centers with a call to NASA techs for potential solutions.

1970s Innovation flow charts via — Urban Development Applications Project — Urban Technology Transfer Study — Jan-1, 1975, a report prepared for NASA by ABT Associates

Among the significant achievements of the tech transfer program led by Abe Karen — the LES native, City College+NYU alumni, and eventually NASA physicist were:

  1. SCAN or Silent Communications Alarm Network where teachers at 2 NYC schools in Brooklyn and The Bronx were equipped with wireless transmitters disguised as fountain pens that would allow them to signal for help in the event of an armed attack.
  2. Portable Heroin detector — NASA research into investigating sources of spaceship pilot stress would lead to repurposing techniques to identify morphine in urine to detecting Heroin. This technology was passed on to the NYPD in 1973.
  3. Bridge inspection — Vibrations measured by ultrasonic sensors used to measure structural integrity of space vehicles were proposed for bridge inspections.
  4. Road Patching material — Thermoplastics partly composed of old car tires and used as a component in rocket fuel could be used for quick application to patch potholes and cracked road surfaces.
  5. Anti-graffiti substances were the most investigated tech and employed a number of chemical innovations.
Urban technology application flowcharts; NASA <> Baltimore Fire Department

The NASA-NYCAP project would sadly come to an end with the untimely passing of Abe, shortly after the program’s launch.

Upon reading the NYTimes article, the city of Baltimore reaches out to NASA and initiates the NASA-Baltimore Technology Applications Project in 1974 which continues for a few more years.

There may be a number of reasons why NASA’s Urban Innovations program ground to a halt.

It is possible that NASA broadened its ambitions from just cities, then a symbol of decay and decline. In 1976, NASA would launch the Spinoff magazine series which describe how NASA inventions were being used by the private sector and applied in the real world. This was perhaps a better and more efficient way to reach and remind the public of the importance to preserve NASA’s publicly funded experimentation.

1975 was also the year that President Gerald Ford was famously portrayed telling New York City to “Drop Dead” — this was later proved to be an unfair characterization of his speech but the sentiment of urban failure was very much the zeitgeist at the time and it may have been too difficult for NASA to maintain an urban renewal program on its balance sheets only a few years after its budget was more than halved.

Mr. Ford, on Oct. 29, 1975, gave a speech denying federal assistance to spare New York from bankruptcy. The front page of The Daily News the next day read: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”. It’s important to note that, that’s this was not what he actually said via NYTIMES
NASA’s 1967 budget was equivalent to $38 Billion (in 2014 dollars). In 2014, NASA’s budget was $17 Billion.

My takeaways from the NASA <> NYC collaboration

That Abe Karen would wake up every morning those few years and tirelessly find all the ways the space-age could benefit everyday New Yorkers is heart-warming and tremendously inspiring. I’d like to believe that everyone in the smart city, open-data, urban/gov/civic-tech field shares that spirit of purpose and discovery.

On the other hand, children and teachers still get hurt in our schools, Heroin has made a ferocious resurgence in our communities, Potholes cripple our local infrastructure, and urban graffiti has become high art.

In today’s AI-age, we find ourselves challenged, yet again, to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. This time though, it is required not to just send a few good men to the moon or Mars but instead to preserve, protect, and maintain our planet from ourselves.

The engines of this change are not Solid Rocket Boosters whose environmental cost per launch equals all of New York city’s emissions over a weekend, but a renewed capacity to propel our cities towards attaining an escape velocity on intractable & very terrestrial problems instead of orbiting around the familiar and safe or race towards building castles in the cosmos.

In the same spirit as the late Abe Karen and all those at NASA who wanted to transfer gains in space exploration tech. to earthly causes, we at ARGO, share that spirit and purpose towards an ARGO-City Applications Projects.

1976 NASA Spinoff
1977 NASA Spinoff

The Landsat satellite program comparing the Sierra-Nevada snowpack between 1975 and 1977.

Drought in the 1970's spurred efforts at urban conservation throughout California.

The California Data Collaborative powered by Team ARGO combines similar data with current image classification techniques to perform statewide irrigated area assessments.

A NASA mobile laboratory for skid resistance that offers a low-cost approach to ensure safe roads.

ARGO’s Project SQUID pioneers a low-cost method to perform digital and citywide street quality inspections.

The Automated Mixed Traffic Vehicle was developed in 1978 would provide autonomous last-mile service by following a small cable embedded in the road.

Driverless electric trams were a result of several aerospace technologies.

1976 NASA Spinoff

Light-weight firefighter’s air tanks and breathing system were based on concepts developed by NASA-Johnson for astronauts.




Pioneering the future of government operations. Contact us: argo@argolabs.org

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Varun Adibhatla

Varun Adibhatla

this shrub thing

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