Student Features

NASA Goes to the Olympics
08.12.04
On August 13, the world gathered in Athens, Greece. Athens is the meeting place of the 28th Olympic Games.

So what does this have to do with NASA? Are the astronauts in one of the sporting events? No. But, there will be a little bit of NASA at the Olympics. NASA has been to other Olympic games by way of spin-offs. A spin-off is a product that is developed from technologies or materials that were originally developed for the space program. Many businesses and companies have used NASA technology to make our lives better.

There are well over 1,300 spin-offs of NASA technology. There are some in the areas of health and medicine such as CAT scans and MRIs. Some spin-offs that you may have in your home are water purifiers, cordless power tools and beds made with tempur foam. You may wear glasses that have a coating that protects lenses from scratching or sunglasses that block out radiation -- both made from NASA technology. Besides the spin-offs at your home, there may be a NASA presence in Athens.
Picture of two male ice skaters racing


Image to right: The U.S. Speedskating Team looked to NASA for new ways to make skating better. Credit: NASA

This will not be the first time that NASA has been to the Olympics. In February 1998, the U.S. Speedskating Team came home from the winter Olympics with silver and bronze medals. The team gives NASA part of the credit for their success. A polishing process and tool invented by a former NASA engineer helped increase the speed of the skates.

What do technology to reduce drag in airplanes and a racing yacht have in common? They both use "riblets." Riblets are not small pieces of barbecue meat. Riblets are V-shaped grooves with angles that point in the direction of the air flow. They are no bigger than a scratch. And they look like very tiny ribs. Riblets help reduce "skin-friction" drag.
A crew sailing the yacht called Stars and Stripes


Image to left: The Stars and Stripes won the America's Cup in 1987. Credit: NASA

When the drag on the airplane is greater than the thrust that pushes it forward, the plane slows down. Then, more fuel is needed to keep the plane up to speed. The riblets help reduce this drag. NASA learned that fast-swimming sharks also have something like riblets on their skin. A riblet skin was invented for NASA. It was later used on the U.S. rowing shell that competed in the 1984 Summer Olympics in the four-oar-with-coxswain category. The shell's crew won a silver medal, the first U.S. medal won in the event in many years. The skin was later used on the Stars and Stripes racing yacht which regained the America's Cup for the U.S.
 
Two women and a man modeling swimsuits


Image to right: Swimsuits with riblets help swimmers lower the drag through water. Credit: NASA

Riblet technology has also been used in competition swimsuits. U.S. swimmers who wore these suits won 13 gold medals, three silver medals and one bronze medal in the 1995 Pan American Games. The riblets on both the boats and the swimsuits help to reduce the drag in the water.

They may not all be used at this year's Olympics, but there are other sports-related spin-offs. Some athletic shoes are made with the same technology used to make space suits. Some golf clubs are made with metals made for the Space Station. The design of the Space Shuttle's orange external tank has been used to make golf balls fly with more stability. Even the Olympic Stadium in Rome and other sports stadiums have "moonsuit" roofs made with the fabric used to create spacesuits. And the list goes on.

Several tennis shoes floating around as if in space


Image to left: Some athletic shoes are made with a technique that allows shock-absorbent material to be placed in the soles. Credit: NASA

NASA technology can be found in many areas of our lives. And, it may be one of the tickets to the gold at this summer's Olympics.

Adapted from Polished to Win