By J.R. Wilson
In his January 1961 farewell address to the nation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower fretted about the tradition of “the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop [being] overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields.” To be certain, NASA has employed large teams of scientists and engineers in managing its complex missions. But the agency has also encouraged the spark of genius that comes from individual inventors. Significantly, both ways of doing business have resulted in remarkable technical innovations that have served to advance progress in aeronautics research, space science and space exploration as well as benefit people on Earth.
Happy landings - This low-cost, ballistic parachute system manufactured by BRS, Inc., with the support of three NASA Small Business Innovation Research contracts has saved more than 200 lives.
As famed heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, who has collaborated with NASA on one of its most beneficial inventions, an artificial heart pump, has said, “NASA is engaged in very active research. It has as its goal to explore space. But to do so, you’ve got to do all kinds of research – biological research, physical research and so on. So it’s really a very, very intensive research organization. And anytime you have any type of intensive research organization or activity going on, new knowledge is going to flow from it. ”The story of NASA’s tangible impacts on our daily lives may not garner as much attention as dramatic space missions do, but the return on investment to society from NASA’s challenging activities is significant. It was heartening, therefore, when USA Today recently offered a list of the “Top 25 Scientific Breakthroughs” that have occurred in its 25 years, and nine of them came from space, eight directly from NASA. In a speech kicking off NASA’s 50th anniversary year, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said:
Technology transfer has been a mandate for NASA since the agency was established by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. The act requires that NASA provide the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and results. It also provides NASA with the authority to patent inventions to which it has title. The term “spinoff” was invented to describe specific technologies developed by NASA for its missions that are transferred for commercial use or some other beneficial application. Thus far, NASA has documented more than 1,500 spinoff success stories.
Despite NASA’s record of technological achievement, one of the common complaints from NASA’s advocates is that the agency does not publicize enough of the practical benefits of what it does. It is perhaps an especially daunting task for its engineers and lends credence to the old joke, “How do you tell an introverted NASA engineer from an extroverted one? The extroverted one looks at your shoes when he’s talking.”
But, there is another side to the story. While lawmakers back in 1958 anticipated NASA’s potential for spurring technological innovation, it is unlikely these legislators largely anticipated even a fraction of the impact the new agency would have as an engine of economic growth, and as a benefactor to society, not just in the United States, but worldwide.
NASA itself acknowledged just how unknowable, yet inevitable, such a future would be in its second year of existence, 1959, in its Long Range Plan: “Space science activities cover the frontiers of almost all the major areas of the physical sciences and these activities thus provide support of the physical sciences in specific applications in the field of electronics, materials, propulsion, etc., [and] will contribute, directly or indirectly, to all subsequent military weapons developments and to many unforeseen civilian applications.” How right they were! At that time, no one could have anticipated a connection between, say, the International Space Station and restoration of 19th century paintings, between the imaging of Mars and ancient Roman manuscripts, or between astronauts heading to the moon and the safety of the food we eat every day. Nor did they imagine how many thousands of lives would be saved by space-aided search and rescue or by the aforementioned hurricane prediction or by numerous hospital technologies derived from NASA research. Or, another strange connection: the launch pads in Florida and the Statue of Liberty and Golden Gate Bridge.
It is often said that at least some of the technological developments and advances in science, medicine, engineering and other disciplines that arose – directly or indirectly – from NASA’s programs no doubt eventually would have occurred anyway. When, where and by whom cannot be known – nor how different such developments might have been without the interaction of multiple advances in multiple areas, freely shared, within what has been, in the history of human advancements, the blink of an eye. But there is also no doubt that space is a unique environment, demanding rapid innovation and new ways of thinking, with little tolerance for error. And these demands reward all of us when they spurred creativity and technological invention.
Remote robotic surgery - Aquanaut Tim Broderick demonstrates a robotic surgical arm on the ninth NASA Extreme Environmental Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission. NASA research aimed at keeping astronauts healthy far from Earth holds great promise for people on Earth.
The areas in which NASA-developed technologies benefit society can broadly be defined as: health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, environmental and agricultural resources, computer technology and industrial productivity. Since 1976, the annual NASA publication Spinoff has detailed the influence and impact on society of agency activities. More detail on these and other programs, technologies and spinoffs can be accessed through NASA’s Spinoff data base or accessed on NASA’s Web site, www.nasa.gov. Also, since 1990, NASA has recognized its “Government and Commercial Invention of the Year” and, since 1994, the “Software of the Year.” The following examples, shown by the year they were published in Spinoff, are merely indicative of NASA’s positive societal impact over the years.
1978: Teflon-coated fiberglass developed in the 1970s as a new fabric for astronaut spacesuits has been used as a permanent roofing material for buildings and stadiums worldwide. (By the way, contrary to urban myth, NASA did not invent Teflon.)
1982: Astronauts working on the lunar surface wore liquid-cooled garments under their space suits to protect them from temperatures approaching 250 degrees Fahrenheit. These garments, further developed and refined by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, are among the agency’s most widely used spinoffs, with adaptations for portable cooling systems for treatment of medical ailments such as burning limb syndrome, multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries and sports injuries.
1986: A joint National Bureau of Standards/NASA project directed at the Johnson Space Center resulted in a lightweight breathing system for firefighters. Now widely used in breathing apparatuses, the NASA technology is credited with significant reductions in inhalation injuries to the people who protect us.
1991: Tapping three separate NASA-developed technologies in the design and testing of its school bus chassis, a Chicago-based company was able to create a safer, more reliable, advanced chassis, which now has a large market share for this form of transportation.
1994: Relying on technologies created for servicing spacecraft, a Santa Barbara-based company developed a mechanical arm that allows surgeons to operate three instruments simultaneously, while performing laparoscopic surgery. In 2001, the first complete robotic surgical operation proved successful, when a team of doctors in New York removed the gallbladder of a woman in France using the Computer Motion equipment.
1995: Dr. Michael DeBakey of the Baylor College of Medicine teamed up with Johnson Space Center engineer David Saucier to develop an artificial heart pump – based on the design of NASA’s space shuttle main engine fuel pumps – that supplements the heart’s pumping capacity in the left ventricle. Later, a team at Ames Research Center modeled the blood flow, and improved the design to avoid harm to blood cells. The DeBakey Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) can maintain the heart in a stable condition in patients requiring a transplant until a donor is found, which can range from one month to a year. Sometimes, permanent implantation of the LVAD can negate the need for a transplant. Bernard Rosenbaum, a Johnson Space Center propulsion engineer who worked with the DeBakey-Saucier group said, “I came to NASA in the early 1960s as we worked to land men on the moon, and I never dreamed I would also become part of an effort that could help people’s lives. We were energized and excited to do whatever it took to make it work.”
2000: NASA’s “Software of the Year” award went to Internet-based Global Differential GPS (IGDG), a C-language package that provides an end-to-end system capability for GPS-based real-time positioning and orbit determination. Developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the software is being used to operate and control real-time GPS data streaming from NASA’s Global GPS Network. The Federal Aviation Administration has adopted the software’s use into the Wide Area Augmentation System program that provides pilots in U.S. airspace with real-time, meter-level accurate knowledge of their positions.
2000: Three Small Business Innovation Research contracts with NASA’s Langley Research Center resulted in a new, low cost ballistic parachute system that lowers an entire aircraft to the ground in the event of an emergency. These parachutes, now in use for civilian and military aircraft, can provide a safe landing for pilots and passengers in the event of engine failure, midair collision, pilot disorientation or incapacitation, unrecovered spin, extreme icing and fuel exhaustion. To date, the parachute system is credited with saving more than 200 lives.
2005: Two NASA Kennedy Space Center scientists and three faculty members from the University of Central Florida teamed up to develop NASA’s Government and Commercial Invention of the Year for 2005, the Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron (EZVI) Technology. Designed to address the need to clean up the ground of the historic Launch Complex 34 at KSC that was polluted with chlorinated solvents used to clean Apollo rocket parts, the EZVI technology provides a cost-effective and efficient cleanup solution to underground pollution that poses a contamination threat to fresh water sources in the area. This technology has potential use for the cleanup of environmental contamination at thousands of Department of Energy, Department of Defense, NASA and private industry facilities throughout the country.
A dome with 80,000 views - Atlanta’s Georgia Dome contains a Teflon-coated fiberglass roof that is a spinoff of fabric developed by NASA for spacesuits.
Beyond recognizing the value of these technologies, it is also inspiring to learn the story of the people behind the innovation. Consider the case of Dr. Rafat Ansari, a longtime scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, who, while working with fluid physics experiments conducted by astronauts in space, found an unusual use for a NASA device when his father faced the challenge of cataracts. The physics experiments looked at colloidal systems, small particles that are suspended in liquids, a description which also happened to fit the nature of his father’s eye disease. In a flash of insight, Ansari realized that the instrument being developed as part of the colloids experiment might be able to detect cataracts – possibly earlier than ever before. The device is now being used to assess the effectiveness of new, non-surgical therapies for early stages of cataract development. It is also being adapted as a pain-free way to identify other eye diseases, diabetes and possibly even Alzheimer’s. The device also may have an unexpected return for NASA: It has been investigated as a possible medical tool for astronauts, who may develop cataracts as a side effect of the kind of radiation exposure that they might experience in long-duration spaceflight. Perhaps as interesting is the motivation that space provided to Ansari to pursue a career in science. He says it traces entirely to a single moment: when he was 9 years old in Pakistan, and he saw the live, grainy television images of people walking for the first time on the moon.
This example illustrates how NASA’s extraordinary goals inspire exceptional minds. It also shows how the aforementioned strange connections can come about. Just how are the International Space Station and old artwork related? Well, atomic oxygen found hundreds of miles above Earth attacks and very gradually destroys materials used in satellites and spacecraft. NASA built a facility here on Earth that bombards materials planned for the ISS with atomic oxygen to test their durability. NASA Glenn Research Center engineers Bruce Banks and Sharon Miller realized that their atomic oxygen facility could be used in a positive, rather than destructive way: It could gradually remove unwanted material from surfaces without ever needing to touch or rub them. Their invention has been used to restore two 19th century paintings coated in soot from a church fire in Cleveland, Ohio; the technique also restored a vandalized Andy Warhol painting for the Pittsburgh Museum of Art. In both cases, no existing art restoration methods would work. Again, the unique demands of space exploration created unique innovation here.
How about food safety? Well, NASA invented a system (really a seven-step guide to monitor and test food production) to try to assure that the astronauts on the way to the moon would not get food poisoning. Twenty-five years later, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department adopted that safety system for all of us, and a year later, according to industry, the number of cases of salmonella dropped by a factor of two.
Today, the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge are coated in a protective material that NASA needed to invent to save its launch pads from the destructive effects of hot, humid and salt-laden air.
Finally, the multispectral imaging methods used for seeing and understanding the Martian surface have been applied to, as the Chicago Tribune noted in 2006, “badly charred Roman manuscripts that were buried during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Examining those carbonized manuscripts under different wavelengths of light suddenly revealed writing that had been invisible to scholars for two centuries.”
All of these examples only begin to tell the story. While their existence is a source of pride, we must realize that America did not create the space program with the idea of gaining these collateral benefits. But through its proven record of developing new technologies, it is likely that in the next 50 years NASA will continue to inspire whole new industries, revolutionize existing ones, and create new possibilities for the future, benefiting people everywhere.
Howard Ross also contributed to this article.