Educator Features

What Can I Wear Today?
Two girls wearing clear braces
A pretty smile hardly seems like rocket science. Sometimes the things we use come from unlikely beginnings.

Image to left: NASA technology helps improve life on earth as well as in space. Credit: NASA

In a very unlikely transfer of information, technology used to track heat-seeking missiles has been developed into invisible dental braces. Braces are not made from missile components; rather, transparent polycrystalline alumina (TPA), which was developed for missile work, is a component in both products. TPA's benefits to these technologies are its greater-than-steel strength, its light-absorbing properties (which makes the material transparent), and its smooth, round, properties that resist breakage.

Athletic Wear for Endurance and Reduced Fatigue

You wouldn't wear the outer covering of an airplane to the swimming pool. You wouldn't wear moon boots to a track meet. Indirectly, though, these NASA creations have led to the development of quite a few items of clothing. NASA's Technology Transfer and Technology Spin-off programs encourage private enterprise to use and adapt space research for use in the public and commercial sectors.

The outer covering to an airplane? That concept, developed by NASA Langley Research Center, is riblets: small, barely visible grooves that were placed on the surface of an airplane to reduce surface friction and aerodynamic drag by modifying the airflow next to the outer edges of an airplane. Although the grooves are no deeper than a scratch, they make a surprising difference on the airflow near the plane's surface. Riblets are also featured on a line of competition swimsuits that in testing were found to bring competition results 10 to 15 percent faster than similar swimsuits.

Airplane riblets are grooved into metal, and obviously, swimsuits aren't. Swimsuits use a silicon material for the areas subject to the most turbulence (and hydrodynamic resistance) during swimming activity and microfibers that absorb less water than standard materials.

Boots worn on the Moon needed to be specially cushioned because of the unusual lunar surface conditions. The material used has now turned up as a key element in a family of athletic shoes designed for improved shock absorption, energy return, and reduced foot fatigue. Tri-Lock® is the commercial incarnation of a three-dimensional space fabric that uses fiber coils encapsulated within a polyurethane foam carrier, which is in turn surrounded by a stable motion control casing. The design produces a system that retains shock-absorbing capabilities that stands up to the running, jumping, or pounding inflicted upon the shoe. As the foot makes contact with the ground, the encapsulated fabric is compressed. As the foot begins to reach the end of its stride, the heel-to-toe waves of fibers provide a rebound effect, producing upward force similar to a spring. This coiled-energy effect absorbs and redistributes energy back into the wearer, reducing foot fatigue and increasing athletic efficiency. The Earth-bound athletic shoes reduce impact forces that affect the muscular-skeletal system in the foot and lower leg, just like their Moon counterparts.

Kids wearing safety helmets for bike riding
Image to right: NASA technology like the material used in bicycle helmets helps keep us safe during our everyday activities. Credit: NASA.

Sports enthusiasts will continue to offer thanks to NASA when they go out to play. Helmets used by bicyclists, football players and other athletes are safer now because they have three times the shock- absorbing capacity of earlier helmets. Shock reduction is achieved by an interior padding of temper foam, first used in aircraft seats. Little league and professional players wear these helmets to protect the head, and other sports equipment such as baseball chest protectors and soccer shin guards have come about with the same technology. Temper foam is open-cell polyurethane-silicone plastic foam that takes the shape of impressed objects (like heads) but returns to its original shape even after 90% compression. It absorbs sudden impacts without shock or bounce. A 3-inch thick pad can absorb all the energy from a 10-foot fall by an adult, and can adjust to the shape of the wearer's head without putting undue pressure on any one point.

Keeping Comfortable with a NASA Wardrobe

Moon wear provided more than just athletic shoe technology. Because of temperature extremes on the lunar surface, astronauts needed to maintain their body temperatures in situations ranging from very hot to ultracold. Special fabrics were developed, including a monofilament, open-mesh material used in spacesuit liners that wick away perspiration from warm and active astronauts, and chemically etched foil circuits in gloves to trap body heat in cold temperatures.

Aluminized mylar (mylar is the shiny material in foil balloons), originally developed for NASA Goddard Space Flight Research Center to make satellites more reflective, and for space suit insulation, has been adapted to create jackets and ski parkas. The reflective capabilities are used to retain body heat and provide a barrier from cold and hot temperatures.

Space suits featured heat-absorbing gel packs that slip into insulated pockets of the astronauts' garments, positioned near parts of the body where heat transfer is most efficient. Gel packets, which last about an hour and are easily replaced, are invaluable during space walks. Runners, joggers and any other athlete on Earth, whose performance may be affected by hot weather, can wear cooling headbands, wristbands and running shorts with gel pack pockets. Gel packs can have non-athletic uses as well: hot and cold compresses for sore muscles, and temperature control for sports spectators are just two possibilities.

The Eyes Have It

When in Space, an astronaut's vision is crucial, and the changes in atmosphere create a strong need to protect space travelers' eyesight. NASA Glenn Research Center developed a film of diamond-like carbon (DLC) that is applied to the lenses of glasses. It provides scratch protection and also reduces surface friction, so that the lenses shed water more easily to reduce spotting. Diamonds are the hardest known substance, but they're also known to be quite expensive; DLC employs the advantages of diamonds without the cost. A thin film of DLC is deposited on the lens by using an ion generator to create a stream of ions from a hydrocarbon gas source; the carbon ions meld directly on the target substrate and "grow" into a thin DLC film. The coating offers 10 times the scratch resistance of conventional glass lenses. As anyone who owns glasses knows, keeping glasses scratch free means they'll last longer and be more economical. In space, helmet lenses and observation windows obtain the same benefits.

picture of sunglasses
Image to right: NASA technology has helped improve eye safety for everyone. Credit: NASA.

Glasses aren't the only way to safeguard your eyes. Goggles do the job when eyes need to be protected from the elements. Goggles can now remain fog-free because of a NASA process, developed at Johnson Space Center, that coats the lens with a combination of liquid detergent, deionized water, and fire-resistant oil. The same process is used in deep-sea diving masks, fire protection helmets, and some specific types of eyewear.

Courtesy of NASA's Human Exploration and Development of Space Enterprise
Published by NASAexplores