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Space spending pays off in earth-bound products, processes

Posted January 16, 2013
Updated January 23, 2013

One question I frequently get is about the millions spent sending astronauts into orbit and robots to other planets. Might that money be better spent here on the ground? The short answer is, that it's all spent on the ground. Neither NASA or any other space agency fills rockets with cash and launches them into space. The knowledge gained doesn't leave with the mission either. Research and technologies developed to solve challenges in space are frequently transferred to other uses, often involving small businesses around the country.

For example, aural thermometers are used in hospitals, doctors' offices and maybe even your home using the infrared energy emanating from your eardrum to measure body temperature. This is similar to technique used by astronomers to measure the temperature of stars many light years away.

Research into reducing friction on aircraft fuselage and wings was applied to liquids increasing the efficiency of water pumps and air conditioners. It was also applied by swimsuit manufacturer Arena to create hydrodynamic swimsuits used by Olympic swimmers. It is only fitting that the application return to the water, since researchers took their original inspiration from similar features on sharks.

Imaging software developed to support the Hubble Space Telescope has benefited cancer researchers as well. Sharpening images in search of stars led to sharpening mammograms in search of calcification which could indicate early breast cancer.

Glasses with plastic lenses resist shattering but they also can be very easy to scratch. Scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in California developed a method to coat space helmet visors. Today most plastic eyeglass lenses are treated with this long lasting protection.

Saturn V rockets of the Apollo era and space shuttles were transported to launch pads on the powerful crawler-transporters (named "Hans" and "Franz"). Moving 12 million pounds means lots of moving parts which require lots of lubrication. The Kennedy Space Center is in the middle of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge which adds further environmental requirements. Sun Coast Chemicals in nearby Daytona Beach met those requirements by producing a high performance lubricant which was also biodegradable. That formula was added into the company's industrial, marine and sporting good product lines.

Technology used to track SpaceX and other visiting capsules during delicate docking maneuvers with the International Space Station has been adapted to track eye movements during eye surgery. LASIK procedures probably wouldn't be possible without this technology. I'm personally very thankful for this NASA spinoff. It's made my time behind a telescope eyepiece much more enjoyable.

NASA Advanced Ceramics Research on materials to protect the antennae of heat-seeking missile trackers led to development of translucent polycrystalline alumina. The strength and translucence led to its use in invisible braces which are just as strong as their metal counterparts.

Research into algae as a food source for use in space spun off into additives into infant formula. Researchers found the fatty acids contained in a microalgae to be associated with mental and visual development.

Techniques to monitor astronauts' vital signs during spaceflight were adapted in devices to monitor blood sugar levels and release insulin when needed. These implantable devices are also known as insulin pumps and have freed many Type 1 diabetics from daily injections.

Hundreds of sailors owe their lives to the self-righting life raft technology developed by NASA to prevent Apollo-era life rafts from capsizing under the downdraft of helicopters after splashdown landings.

NASA uses a lot of fireworks in its rockets and space craft. "Pyrotechnically-actuated" bolts detach rocket stages as they burn out, jettison the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters or sever the bridle cables of the Mars Science Laboratory as it landed on Mars last summer. Every mission uses these somewhere, probably a lot of them.

Here on Earth, traffic accidents and other emergencies require similar tools that can quickly cut through brake pedals or automotive roof pillars to free trapped occupants. They were used by rescue workers in searching for survivors of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing site in 1995 and the World Trade Center in 2001. They are cheaper and lighter than pneumatic tools, something firefighters who use them appreciate as well.

Drawing on his work on electronic sensing for the space shuttle program and frustration from several failed surgeries to correct his own hearing impairments, engineer Adam Kissiah developed today's widely used cochlear implant. The implant's 22 electrodes replace the function of thousands of hair cells in the inner ear.

You can read more about these and hundreds of other spinoffs at http://spinoff.nasa.gov. NASA spinoffs also will be featured in a talk at Astronomy Days on Jan. 26 and 27 at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science as well.


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

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