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For release: 09/26/03
Release #: 03-167

Inventors help make life better on earth through space-age technology

Photo: Neill Myers, one of Marshall's most prolific inventors, was principal inventor of the Selectively Lockable Knee Brace.

Forty-two years after Dr. Wernher von Braun's "rocket-propelled missile" invention, Marshall Center inventors still make important contributions to the nation's space program — and to the American economy. "Spin-offs," technologies that bring benefits across a broad spectrum of areas, make our lives better.

Photo: Neill Myers, one of Marshall's most prolific inventors, was principal inventor of the Selectively Lockable Knee Brace. (NASA/MSFC)


In 1970, when renowned inventor and rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun said farewell to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., he remarked, "My friends, there was dancing here in the streets of Huntsville when our first satellite orbited the Earth. And, there was dancing again when the first Americans landed on the Moon. I'd like to ask you — don't hang up your dancing slippers."

Forty-two years and 848 patents later, the space center's inventors show no sign of hanging up their "dancing shoes!"

Von Braun, Marshall Center's first director and well known for his leadership in developing rockets for space, was the inventor responsible for the first Marshall Center patent — a rocket-propelled missile — on Jan. 10, 1961.

Marshall inventors of recent years are not as well known as von Braun. However, their inventions make an important contribution to the nation's space program and to the American economy, said Jim McGroary, Marshall's patent counsel, or legal advisor.

"Engineers and scientists here have established a long history of innovation and creativity," said McGroary, who also provides professional advice to Marshall inventors. "And NASA's patent program supports the Center's inventors by giving them the recognition they deserve, as well as transferring space technology to the American economy, so everybody benefits," he added.

Unlike the days when von Braun was issued a rocket-propelled missile patent, today patented inventions must demonstrate commercial potential. Inventors are advised to develop their ideas, when possible, with the needs of the market in mind, said Sammy Nabors, commercial assistance team leader of the Marshall Technology Transfer

Department. That's because in 1962, a few years after the space agency was created in 1958, NASA established the Technology Utilization Program to promote the transfer of aerospace technology to the private sector. As a result, life on Earth has benefited from an outpouring of space technology "spin-offs" into the fields of health, medicine, transportation, public safety, computer technology, industrial products, consumer products, and many more areas.

Some of the better-known inventions developed by the people of the Marshall Center include:

VISAR

Helping law enforcement identify criminals and solve crimes is a surprising benefit from a NASA-developed technology known as VISAR. Short for Video Image Stabilization and Registration, this software was created by NASA scientists Dr. David Hathaway and Paul Meyer to study violent explosions on the Sun and examine hazardous weather conditions on Earth. VISAR stabilizes and enhances poor quality video, brightens dark pictures and enlarges small areas to reveal clues about crimes. Under commercial licensing to Intergraph Corp., of Huntsville, Ala., VISAR software has been incorporated into the company's Video Analyst workstation, which has been sold to numerous law enforcement agencies.

Hathaway and Meyer have personally helped police departments nationwide, as well as the FBI, solve dozens of criminal cases using their VISAR invention. After the recent high-profile assault case involving an 11-year-old girl in a store in West Virginia, police contacted Hathaway and Meyer for help in enhancing images of the suspect captured on store security cameras. Based on video images, a suspect has been identified, arrested and charged.

Hathaway and Meyer received NASA's 2002 Commercial Invention of the Year award for VISAR. The two were also nominated by NASA to compete for the national Inventor of the Year Award, an annual competition that recognizes outstanding American inventors whose work has been patented or made commercially available.

VISAR was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2001.

Aluminum Alloy

Another NASA patent success story is a high-strength aluminum-silicon alloy invented by Jonathan Lee, a Marshall structural materials engineer, and PoShou Chen, a scientist with Morgan Research Corp., of Huntsville, Ala. The alloy was developed seven years ago when a major automobile manufacturer approached NASA about developing a strong, low-cost alternative to current aluminum alloy pistons that would lower engine emissions.

Seven patents have been filed on the aluminum alloy, and the technology was licensed to three companies last year. Another license has been signed with Bombardier Motor Corporation of America of Melbourne, Fla., an outboard marine engine manufacturer of Johnson and Evinrude engines. The alloy is three times stronger than conventional cast aluminum alloy at high temperatures, and will enable engine manufacturers to make engines that produce more horsepower with less weight, while emitting fewer pollutants. The alloy is also being tested for a new fighter jet design and holds promise of improving gas mileage in cars and recreational vehicles, as well as boats.

Knee Brace

A team of five Marshall engineers, including principal inventor Neill Myers and co-inventors Michael Shadoan, John Forbes, Kevin Baker and Darron Rice, invented the Selectively Lockable Knee Brace. This prosthetic device is designed to aid recovering stroke and knee injury patients.

The knee brace attaches to a person's thigh, with the lower part secured to the foot. It allows knee movement when weight is not on the heel, then locks into position when weight is placed on the heel. This allows patients to walk with a more natural, stabilized gait and promotes a quicker, less painful recuperation than with devices that lock the knee in a rigid, straight-leg position or permit free motion.

The engineer team developed brace mechanisms and materials in 1996 as an outgrowth of their work on NASA propulsion systems. The team members were named Marshall Center Inventors of the Year in 1996 and 1998. The technology was one of 15 featured at a White House observance in 2000 of the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Another patent — for an improvement involving a device that locks the brace in place, increasing its reliability — has been applied for and is pending.

Center and Inventors Benefit

The Marshall Center benefits from inventor royalties, and has received more than $60,000 in royalty fees since 1993. But as an incentive, inventors receive a percentage of royalties collected as well, said Nabors.

"Marshall scientists and engineers have an outstanding record of reporting new technologies," Nabors said. "The inventor benefits, the Center benefits, and the American public benefits."

For more information about licensing and Marshall's Technology Transfer Program, visit:

http://www.nasasolutions.com/

For more information about patents, visit:

http://www.uspto.gov/

For more information:
News release
Photos
NASA Solutions
United States Patent and Trademark Office


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