Kennedy Space Center Story

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Chapter 17
1991 Edition

Technology Twice Used

Doctors in Houston monitor the heartbeats of astronauts in space -- and the new techniques are adapted for cardiac patients on Earth.

A new understanding of how metals crack prevents rocket failures -- and engineers apply the knowledge to bridges and pipelines and buildings.

New fire-resistant coatings and fabrics shield spacecraft and aircraft -- and now protect railroad cars and firemen and homes.

American industry develops bold new concepts for space equipment -- and uses the new capabilities for better products.

Our ventures beyond our own planet have called forth the best efforts of America's imaginative scientists, engineers, and managers. Meeting the challenge of exploring and using space for the benefit of humanity has expanded knowledge and skills in virtually every field of science and technology. Creative people in all walks of life have recognized the value of this new knowledge and its new technologies and are utilizing them to make life better for everyone.

Technologies developed for specific purposes often can be applied in other areas. These applications are known as indirect benefits, or "spinoffs." For instance, NASA's requirement for small, lightweight, dependable guidance and communications systems for spacecraft brought about electronic miniaturization and a revolution in computer technology. An excellent example of this spinoff is the pocket calculator. Technologies developed through NASA's far-ranging aerospace programs have found applications in thousands of areas-the list extends to catalog length. Collectively, they add up to consequential gains in personal convenience, human welfare, industrial efficiency and economic value.

At KSC, the Technology Utilization Office within the Advanced Projects, Technology and Commercialization Office is involved in making space technology available to private industry. This office is charged with the task of informing people and organizations about currently available aerospace technology, and helping them put this information to work. It tries accomplish this in two ways: by helping people from industry and educational institutions find available technology that fits their needs; and by identifying and publicizing new technologies developed at KSC and making them available to potential users.

The Center's patent counsel works with KSC employees who have developed equipment or ideas that may be patentable. Inventions patented by NASA can readily be licensed, and NASA encourages their commercial use. The KSC Technology Utilization Officer reviews proposed aerospace transfer projects to determine whether they comply with established criteria such as technical feasibility and cost.

The Shuttle Launch Processing System presented an opportunity for technology transfer on a huge scale. This highly automated system was designed and developed at KSC for Space Shuttle checkout and launch operations. KSC researchers developed a plan to further apply the complex concepts behind it. These pioneering approaches can be utilized in designing control systems for many functions, including such sensitive operations as nuclear power plants. One day the creative engineering work performed at KSC may be the basis for a system that automatically checks out malfunctions in atomic reactors, or provides an automatic "shutdown" order in time to prevent damage during an emergency.

One of the major components developed for the Launch Processing System is the Common Data Buffer, which can serve as the interface and communications medium in nonaerospace computer complexes. It can be used with any computer and for processing in any computer language, making it widely applicable throughout the industry.

On a smaller scale, another innovative transfer of space technology involves firefighting equipment designed for use in the event of a Shuttle orbiter crash landing. Developed by KSC and Boeing engineers, the fire extinguisher has a hard pointed tip capable of piercing the orbiter's outer layers. Fire-extinguishing chemicals can then be injected inside the spacecraft. After obtaining a license from NASA for commercial use of the technology, a Massachusetts-based company introduced a product used primarily by airport firefighters. The 82-inch (208 centimeter) nozzle device, weighing about 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms), has a tip of hardened steel. It has proven most useful in combating aircraft fires. Fire-dampening chemicals or water are discharged through the nozzle into an aircraft's passenger cabin, cargo compartments, accessory bays or ducts.

Space technology is finding its way into the home as well, thanks to collaborative efforts between KSC, private industry, state and federal agencies, and utilities. About 70 percent of our orbiting satellites incorporate heat pipes, which cool critical electronic components in the spacecraft. Skylab and the Hubble Space Telescope also have utilized this energy-saving technology. In its commercial application, the pipe is used in conjunction with the air conditioning system to cool and dehumidify air more efficiently. A Florida-based entrepreneur has developed a system that can be installed in the home, with anticipated energy savings of 15 to 20 percent.

The state of Florida is working with KSC to reap the benefits of space technology. A property appraiser adapted aerial infrared mapping technology so it could be used to inventory citrus trees as a basis for determining citrus grove valuations. KSC, working with the University of Florida's Citrus Research and Education Center, came up with a dual video system to interpret the photos. Aerial photos of citrus groves taken over a period of time are compared by the video system, revealing changes from one year to the next.

This example of innovative technology transfer resulted in more accurate property valuations at a lower cost. Citrus growers also can use the data to determine areas where problems may exist. The Florida State Department of Revenue is interested in a more automated system which could be used in areas with very large citrus acreages. KSC has issued a contract to the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center to develop such a system.

The Technology Utilization Office has helped develop applications for weather satellite data in a joint project with the National Weather Service and the University of Florida. Hourly surface temperature distribution data from the satellite can be analyzed by a computer, in conjunction with ground measurements of meteorological data, to produce a forecast of temperature distribution throughout the remainder of a cold night. Both the observed temperature, which can be measured to an accuracy of about 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) by the satellite, and the predicted temperature are valuable tools the forecaster uses in developing his frost-warning forecast.

The list of NASA contributions to the health care field continues to grow. A system which has added to the store of human knowledge of the Earth is also enhancing our knowledge about our own bodies. KSC is working with medical researchers to apply the image processing techniques used in the Landsat remote sensing program to a new diagnostic tool called Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

Still largely an experimental technique, MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create body images. Unlike potentially dangerous X-rays, MRI can penetrate bone. In addition, it is a non-invasive technique which is capable of producing large quantities of anatomical and physiological data.

The disadvantage of MRI, radiologists found, was that much of this data was redundant. It also meant there was more to look at, taking up time and increasing the diagnostician's workload. By applying Landsat processing technology, researchers are streamlining the MRI imagery to come up with a composite picture. Landsat, the NASA-developed Earth remote sensing satellite, takes multiple pictures of the Earth. The huge quantities of raw data which it sends down to Earth are analyzed by a computer program. This program cleans up the data -- sharpening contrasts in images and eliminating confusing detail. The result is false color Earth imagery with each feature defined by using different colors.

When the MRI data was plugged into the Landsat processing computer program, the results were equally useful. One radiologist said it was as though a slice of the human body had simply been lifted out for scrutiny. Researchers are striving to take this amazing example of technology transfer even further. They are creating "theme maps" of the human body. The data and computer software can be programmed to look for a particular signature in the MRI imagery, such as a blood clot in the brain or a tumor.

The researchers are now working to convert the Landsat computer program to make it compatible with the computer used in the MRI system. This would allow expansion of the technique to all locations where MRI is employed. As one radiologist put it: "Even these first crude experiments show that the potential is very great. Satellite imagery has opened a new window into the human body."'

Besides answering direct queries to KSC, the Advanced Projects, Technology and Commercialization Office also supports STAC -- the Southern Technology Applications Center. STAC helps Florida-based and other industries in the southern United States find solutions to their problems. STAC provides ready access to more than 10 million articles stored in computer memories. Besides NASA, Florida universities and the Florida Department of Commerce also support STAC.

In addition to direct support from such sources as the Technology Utilization KSC, would-be entrepreneurs, researchers and other interested individuals and companies can turn to two NASA publications for information. NASA Tech Briefs, published monthly, detail technology advances being made at KSC and other NASA Centers. An annual publication Spinoff, reports on the products resulting from technology transfer.

KSC's Technology Utilization program helps businesses avoid the costly process of "reinventing the wheel" when the technology they need is already available. This returns the taxpayer's money in the form of immediate benefits.

Thousands of applications with a genesis in aerospace technology are already benefiting the public. Some of these are genies of convenience, bearing the luxuries of comfort and speed. But other, more important spinoffs convey necessities like food and warmth, which are crucial to human survival. Countless new spinoffs are expected in the years ahead as the Space Shuttle's broader capabilities begin to yield proportionately greater benefits.


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