How Cutting-Edge Technology & Science Are Powering The Future TPM Idealab

As NASA's space shuttle program comes closer to its long-scheduled termination later this year, concern is growing in Florida and around the country about the future of the massive workforce currently employed both directly and indirectly by the program.

Brevard County -- the central Florida home of the Kennedy Space Center, the famous Cape Canaveral launchpad and ten of thousands of highly trained and specialized aerospace workers -- is bracing itself for the worst. Many fear the impending end of the shuttle program will bring about a repeat of the economic devastation of 1975, when NASA abruptly cancelled the Apollo program; everything from rocket science to real estate was impacted, practically overnight.

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The Department of Defense's agency in charge of advanced research and design is looking for new designers to work on the next generation of military vehicles. But the DoD is not directly recruiting from MIT, Carnegie Mellon or the nations' other top computer science and engineering schools. Instead they're looking to you, America, to help with the next generation of military design.

Last week, The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a competition to help design an experimental combat-support vehicle. DARPA is looking for a design for a four-wheeled vehicle that can either transport four passengers or three passengers laying-down for evacuations.

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The workhorse of the space program for decades -- the aging US space shuttle -- has a cargo bay that measures 15 feet by 59 feet. It can launch the equivalent of six large SUVs 1,000 miles up into lower Earth orbit. That might sound like a lot space, but when NASA is trying to launch a new module for the International Space Station (ISS), that cargo space is a critically limiting factor.

Which is why NASA has in the past few months been talking to Las-Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace about producing a new module for the International Space Station based on a simple, space-saving concept: the balloon. When stowed in the space shuttle's cargo bay, the module would be deflated to save space. But once unloaded in orbit, the module would inflate like a very tall doughnut, providing a large ring of usable space for any number of tasks. The center of the doughnut would contain the structure and equipment to maintain the inflated module.

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New Hampshire's state government publicly embraced the open source movement recently by allowing its residents extensive access to app-friendly state legislature activity, arranged in handy pipe-separated database and spreadsheet files.

Simply put, this means that researchers, journalists and developers can now access the minutiae of government data in New Hampshire in an extremely easy-to-use manner. Previously, this information was only available in print or through clunky, hard-to-operate web pages.

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Apple is exerting more control over content purchased for and available on its popular iPad by enforcing rules that require magazine, newspaper and e-reader publishers to sell all content through iTunes.

As of March 31, apps that do not take payments through its iTunes store will be rejected. Although Apple has long required app publishers to sell subscriptions via Apple's "In App Purchase API," some publishers -- notably, The Wall Street Journal andThe Financial Times -- sold them outside Apple's digital store.

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At least two Interior Department offices are testing out iPads in an effort to increase productivity, and a third office is looking to acquire the coveted tablets. But iPads have proven vulnerabilities -- only two weeks ago, a duo was arrested for hacking into AT&T records and exposing 120,000 iPad accounts, including top government officials.

The department is still interested. "They're being used as replacements for laptops and blackberries," said Drew Malcomb, the Interior Department's chief of public affairs. "We see them as filling that need. They have a larger screen, the attachments are onboard and they have most of the capabilities of a laptop."

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Verizon's alleged "legal games" are pretty transparent -- and the D.C. Court of Appeals doesn't seem to be too amused. On Wednesday, the court rejected Verizon's request for the same panel of judges that ruled against the FCC in favor of Comcast to hear their own appeal against the Commission's new net neutrality rules. With Verizon's attempt to hand-pick its judges foiled, lawyers agree that their base strategy of ensuring their case will be heard by the D.C. Court of Appeals is still their best bet.

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The Internal Revenue Service took a bold step for a government agency and released a smartphone application. Titled IRS2Go, the app lets users check their tax return status. But IRS2Go's relatively limited functionality signals a future challenge for federal agencies releasing iPhone/Android applications: how do you give people the functionality they want while still complying with a variety of outdated rules that govern agencies' interactions with the public.

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While none of the telecom giants appeared to be thrilled with the net neutrality regulations passed last month, only Verizon and Metro PCS have taken a swing, challenging the FCC. But are the other cellular giants -- AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile -- just letting Verizon take the lead, or are the backing net neutrality?

Both, and neither, according to various sources: they would apparently rather spend their money fighting issues they see as more key to their success, and may see their acceptance of the popular initiative as a competitive advantage.

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Imagine a future in which each row of annuals and perennials in the flowerbed outside your house was a line of defense against dangerous chemicals and explosives. Biologist June Medford and her team at Colorado State University made a big step towards turning plants into chemical security guards when they recently inserted a computer-redesigned receptor protein into a living plant -- giving it the ability to detect explosives.

Medford described her research to TPM: "Okay. I'm a plant. There is a chemical on the outside, and I'm going to recognize this and do something about it on the inside."

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