NASA has invented all sorts of technology to solve the peculiar problems of space exploration. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it created the revolutionary three-axis stabilization control design that enables satellites to point their antennas, instruments and solar panels with precision. Since then, it’s been such a prolific problem solver that about one in every 1,000 U.S. patents is granted to someone working on a NASA project.
In fact, the NASA workforce is so ingenious that quite a few of its inventions are useful for those of us who stay on the ground. The agency even has a special administrative branch, the Technology Utilization Program, which focuses on helping companies turn the ideas behind space gadgetry into industrial and consumer innovations.
In the early 1960s, an aeronautical engineer named Charles Yost worked on technology designed to make sure that the Apollo command module and its astronauts could be recovered safely after landing. That experience came in handy four years later, when Yost was tapped to help NASA’s Ames Research Center develop airplane seating that could absorb the energy of crashes and increase passengers’ chances of survival. Yost created a special type of plastic foam that had the seemingly miraculous ability to deform and absorb tremendous pressure, then return to its original shape.
Researchers discovered that the “slow springback foam,” as it was called initially, not only made passengers safer, it also made sitting for hours on long flights more comfortable because it allowed for a more even distribution of body weight.
In 1967, Yost formed his own company, Dynamic Systems Inc., which marketed the innovation as “temper foam.” Since then, memory foam has found its way into scores of applications. In the 1970s and 1980s, pro football’s Dallas Cowboys team used it to line players’ helmets to reduce the trauma of impact on the field. Shoe manufacturers have called on the foam to create special high-comfort insoles. In hospitals, mattress pads and wheelchair seats made from the foam support patients with painful, dangerous sores on their bodies.
Companies continue to find new uses for memory foam and its descendants. A Colorado company uses a type of memory foam to build inflatable bumper rafts, which resist sinking, for whitewater rides at theme parks. A company in Kentucky builds it into horses’ saddles and uses it to make prosthetic braces for injured animals [source: NASA Spinoff].
Next, we’ll look at an invention with the smarts to protect NASA’s high-tech equipment from the elements — both on and off the Earth.
One challenge with space exploration is that equipment must withstand radical conditions, from the heat of rocket exhaust to extreme cold in space. Surprisingly, one of the most destructive forces is the corrosive effect of saltwater-laden ocean spray and fog. It rusts gantries — large frames that surround rocket launch sites — and launch structures at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and other coastal facilities. Fortunately, in the 1970s, researchers at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center discovered that coating the equipment with a protective layer containing zinc dust and potassium silicate would help thwart the costly rusting.
In the early 1980s, a company called Inorganic Coatings Inc. used the concept to produce a nontoxic, water-based coating, IC 531 zinc silicate, which readily bonds with steel and dries within 30 minutes to a hard, ceramiclike finish. The coating has been applied to bridge girders, pipelines, oil rigs, dock equipment, buoys, tractor-trailer truck frames and even to the exteriors of U.S. Army tanks.
But perhaps the coating’s most celebrated application came in the mid-1980s, when 225 gallons (852 liters) of it were applied to the inside of the Statue of Liberty, to help curb further deterioration of the century-old iconic figure [source: Space Foundation].
Next up, we’ll meet technology with the ability to let us glimpse something as expansive as the cosmos and as tiny as the arteries traveling away from the human heart.
Since the mid-1960s, scientists in the image processing lab at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have been working to improve video imaging software, so that astronomers can turn space probe data into increasingly vivid, high-resolution images of distant planets and other celestial objects.
In recent years, medical researchers have applied some of NASA’s software innovations to peer not into the sky but into patients’ circulatory systems for signs of atherosclerosis, a common disease in which fatty material builds up inside arteries and threatens to cause heart attacks and strokes.
The California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, licensed the technology to a private company, Medical Technologies International Inc. (MTI), whose chief engineer, Robert Seltzer, was a veteran JPL researcher. The result was ArterioVision software. It can be used with ultrasound equipment to perform a noninvasive examination of a patient’s carotid artery, which carries blood to the brain.
Paired with ultrasound technologies, ArterioVision can detect signs of cardiovascular illness at very early stages, when it would otherwise evade detection by conventional tests. As a result, medical experts say that more patients may have a chance to curb the disease with dietary and lifestyle changes, rather than medication or surgery down the line. Doctors’ offices in all 50 U.S. states offer ArterioVision testing.This next NASA invention has expanded lifestyle options for hearing-impaired individuals worldwide.