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NASA Flexible Aerogel, Innovator Inducted into Space Technology Hall of Fame
Award winnersJames Fesmire (middle) receives the Space Technology Hall of Fame award, presented by NASA Technology Transfer Program Executive Daniel Lockney (left) and astronaut Leroy Chiao (right).
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Award winnersA team of NASA and industry innovators is honored at the Space Technology Hall of Fame awards celebration.
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image of Space Technology Hall of Fame medalThe Space Foundation, in cooperation with NASA, honors the individuals and organizations who transform technologies originally created for space applications into products that improve our quality of life here on Earth.
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Pioneering work to manufacture composite blankets for space applications has yielded a number of Super-insulating Flexible Aerogel products for the commercial marketplace.

The creation of low-density, light-weight flexible aerogel insulating material was saluted April 19 during Space Technology Hall of Fame ceremonies, held during the Space Foundation’s 28th National Space Symposium.

Recognized for their leading aerogel work was James Fesmire, senior principal investigator of the Cryogenics Test Laboratory at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and the startup company, Aspen Systems of Marlborough, Mass.

“One of our primary tasks is to honor the innovators who successfully transformed technology pioneered from space research into products and services that we all enjoy here on Earth,” said Kevin Cook, the Space Foundation’s Director of Space Awareness. “Furthermore, we also want to encourage further innovation,” he said.

The flexible aerogel technology, and the individuals and organizations that made the development possible “represent the very best in space research and technology transfer,” Cook added.

Barrier to Extreme Temperatures

“They picked up the challenge of making it more affordable and easy to use,” said NASA’s Daniel Lockney, Program Executive for Technology Transfer within the Office of the Chief Technologist.

Lockney pointed out that aerogels were developed for cryogenic applications in rocket engine test stands, launch vehicles and life support systems. Flexible aerogels were fabricated to provide a barricade to the extreme temperatures that arise during rocket launches and that affect spacecraft as they are exposed to the high heat and severe cold swings of the space environment.

As a commercial product, Lockney said, flexible aerogel is an effective barrier to extreme temperatures, for use by mountain climbers, endurance runners and has found adoption in outdoor apparel. It has also served as a wrap that helps sufferers of Raynaud’s disease maintain blood temperature and flow in extremities where constricted blood vessels cause pain and discoloration.

Multi-disciplinary Approach

There were two key reasons why it has taken decades to realize the commercial potential of aerogel.

“First it was so brittle that you could not really make it into a durable product,” said Kang Lee, President and CEO of Aspen Systems. “The second reason is that it was too expensive.”

“My joke is, even if you look at aerogel, it breaks,” Lee said.

In tackling those durability and cost issues, Lee said that he and his colleagues applied a multi-disciplinary approach to problem-solving – a mixture of thermal dynamics and acoustics, as well as chemical engineering.

“We combined all kinds of disciplines and looked at it with a fresh set of eyes,” Lee said. Taking that approach led to the formation of his company, Aspen Aerogels, to utilize the firm’s patented method to establish an array of industrial, construction, refrigeration, automotive, medical and commercial applications.

Aspen’s feat was recognized by the Space Foundation as “an outstanding example of applying space technology for the betterment of life on Earth.”