California did best in this autumn's annual competition for six-month feasibility study grants from NASA's Small Business Innovation Research program. Proposing to study such esoteric subjects as "microanalytical characterization of biogenic components in interplanetary dust," 54 California companies won 64 of the 206 contracts awarded. Massachusetts came in second with 32 contracts.
As required by a 1982 law, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration allocates 1.25% of its annual research and development budget to SBIR. NASA will disburse about $50,000 apiece for the winning studies, which were chosen from among 1,744 proposals. About half of the studies later will receive two-year grants of up to $500,000 to continue development and, in some cases, start building a prototype of the innovation. Small businesses are defined as those with fewer than 500 employees, SBIR program manager John Glaab said.
PDA Engineering made one of the most unusual but successful proposals by a Southern California firm. The Costa Mesa company, which employs about 160, will study the construction of lightweight gondolas for high-altitude balloons. By using graphite and synthetic fibers to make the instrument-carrying containers both stronger and more than 10% lighter, the program will enable scientists to use farther flying, 20% smaller balloons to study atmospheric conditions at altitudes exceeding 100,000 feet, said Hap Stoller, general manager of the firm's materials and structures technologies division.