NASA 360: Season 1, Episode 3

NASA 360: Season 1, Episode 3
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IN THIS EPISODE (in order of appearance):


[energetic electronic music]

(Jennifer): Hey, there. I'm Jennifer Pulley, and welcome to another episode of NASA 360.

We have a great show lined up for you today. First we're gonna talk about NASA's exploration plans, you know, like, where are they headed? Try the moon -- we're going back -- and Mars. Then for all you gearheads out there, we're gonna show you how IndyCar and NASCAR are using some NASA technologies in racing.

But first, let's talk about this behind me. By the end of the next decade, NASA is planning on going back to the moon. Now, technology, it has changed so much since 1969 when they originally landed on the moon. So NASA's been developing new technologies, new spacecraft, new structures to help them get back. And with any new plan like this, huge, huge concern: safety. And it should be. With that being said, NASA has begun testing the new concepts and vehicles to help them get back to the moon.

And this thing behind me? It's part of the testing. It's called the flight test article for the launch abort system. What does that mean? Let me help you break it down.

The vehicles that NASA will be using in their new exploration plans will look very similar to the Apollo vehicles used back in the 1960s and '70s, but these will be much more advanced. NASA's new spacecraft will include the Ares rockets that will carry crew and cargo into space, the Altair lunar lander that will bring crews down to the lunar surface. And finally, there will be the Orion capsule that will house NASA astronauts during liftoff and return to Earth.

So, you see, this flight test article is a mock-up of that Orion capsule I was just talking about. Yeah, but why would NASA need a mock-up like this?

In the unlikely event that the astronauts need to escape from the launchpad quickly, the launch abort system will lift the Orion capsule away from the danger area one mile in the air and one mile downrange. Parachutes will deploy, and the capsule will come down for a landing. So before astronauts fly in this capsule, NASA must test it to be sure it operates properly and that it's safe.

That's where the flight test article comes in. NASA can't rely on computer simulations alone. So they need to test a full-scale unmanned version of the craft. It will be strapped onto the escape rocket motor and fired to make sure that everything works as planned.

The results of this test will help NASA make sure everything is in working order and give some reassurance that this system will keep the crews safe. By now -- if you didn't already know it before -- you've heard me say NASA first went to the moon back in 1969.

But did you know that tons of the materials developed for those first moon missions can be found in our daily lives? That's right. You can find some NASA-inspired technologies in your home, your car, your computer, even in the packaging for the food we eat.

And guess where else they can be found. Try professional sports equipment. There's not a sport around that hasn't been touched by NASA in some way. Now, to help show us that NASA technology, Johnny Alonso cruised down to Miami, Florida, to meet with some folks from the IndyCar series.

(Johnny): How's it going? I'm Johnny Alonso.

Let me ask you something. If you had to guess, what would you say is the most popular spectator sport in the world: football, soccer, basketball?

Yeah, those are all popular, but one that doesn't come to mind as quickly is auto racing. Hands down, auto racing is in the top tier of sporting events. And just to prove that, all you got to do is check out the numbers.

You know the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that hosts the Indy 500? That place can almost seat 400,000 people, and that's just for one race, one race.

[engine roars]

From the first cars ever built through today, people have always wanted to see cars go faster and faster. But let me tell you, by today's standards, those early cars weren't exactly what you would call safe. A lot of drivers didn't wear seat belts or helmets. And actually, many of the cars didn't even have padded seats, so things could get sketchy really fast in the old days.

But today's racing is very different. Although it's still fraught with risks, the technology and engineering that goes into the sport is amazing. Without doubt, racing is one of the most advanced and technology-driven sports around.

[engine whines]

Okay, so what does NASA have to do with racing? Well, a lot more than you might think.

[engine whines]

Dozens of NASA-inspired technologies that were originally created for space and aeronautics are now being used in race cars. So to find find out more about these NASA-inspired technologies, I traveled down to the Homestead Miami Raceway to speak with some key people from IndyCar.

Even if you don't know anything about racing, you know what an Indy car is. These super-sleek race cars can put out over 700 horsepower and can reach speeds well over 200 miles per hour (322 kph).

The IndyCar series is the premier open-wheeled racing league in the country. Now, open-wheeled is different from, say, NASCAR, because the steering wheel is outside the main body, not tucked under a roof. So a lot of testing goes into every car. And one of the key elements that are being tested are the cars' aerodynamic characteristics.

Aerodynamics is a big deal in racing, because you want your car to go fast but stay on the track at the same time. Think about it like this: when a jetliner takes off, it's usually moving between 150 and 180 miles per hour (241 to 290 kph). So if an Indy car goes over 200 miles per hour (322 kph), you would think it might take off too, right?

Well, one of the major reasons the car sticks to the ground is because of its wings. Yeah, that's right. Indy cars have wings that are similar to a jetliner. But the big difference is, the Indy car wings are turned upside down, providing downforce instead of lift. So instead of the car taking off like a plane does, the air pressure pushes the car towards the ground, keeping it firmly planted on the track.

So how are race cars' aerodynamic characteristics tested? Well, pretty much the same way we test airplanes -- in wind tunnels.

A lot of car designers team up with NASA to use NASA wind tunnels to get a better handle on aerodynamics. So whether you're driving in your family car, flying in a plane, or zipping around in an Indy car, it's a good bet that a lot of initial testing was done at NASA.

Another NASA-inspired technology being used in racing today is the fire protection suits worn by drivers and pit crews. Originally used by NASA astronauts for the rigors of space, today's drivers wear boots, gloves, masks, and overalls that can help keep them safe in case of a fire. In fact, these suits are so good that recent test determined that drivers could theoretically survive up to 35 seconds in a fire with the heat reaching 1,500 degrees (816° C).

To help us find out about the cutting edge technology used in these cars, I spoke with my buddy Les McTaggart from the IndyCar series.

(Les McTaggart): This is a current IndyCar series car, and, I mean, this car is capable of probably traveling over 230 miles an hour (370 kph) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

So safety's one of the prime concerns for us, obviously, because the drivers are very important. So the whole car, this whole section of the car really is the cockpit area where the driver's located. He sits in this area here, and we have a headrest structure around here. This has foam inside, and it's to protect the driver's head in an accident so that this compresses.

Behind that, we have a molded seat. Now, this seat, it's made of a dense foam material. It's actually molded to the driver's body. It fits every curvature of his body to hold him very securely in the cockpit so that in a high-impact condition, he doesn't move in the car. Because if he moves in the car, that's when you get an injury.

Let's talk about aerodynamics. Right, the aerodynamics of these cars, actually, is really cool, because the whole car is designed like an upside down wing. We propel the air under the car faster than it flows over the top surface. And the reason that we do that is to create ground effects. And the ground effects on this car typically is probably about 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg) of negative pressure.

So you could run this car on the ceiling at 180 miles an hour, and it wouldn't fall off.

(Johnny): Wow!

(Les McTaggart): And the idea is so you can go through corners very fast, because the car is actually stuck to the ground.

(Johnny): So can you tell the viewers how the aerodynamics have actually changed with the cars?

(Les McTaggart): Yeah, I mean, certainly over the last 10 or 15 years they've become much more sophisticated, 'cause we have many more tools to refine the cars.

Wind tunnels have become much more sophisticated in terms of the speeds we can run the cars in, and we can understand all aspects of the cars now, because not only going in a straight line; we look at how they spin, how they react, resistance to the car, and can we improve the safety of the car in different situations.

So the tools available to us now are ten times better than they were 15 years ago.

[engine roaring]

Safety's very important to us, and we're constantly looking at new technology to try and improve the situation for the drivers. Because all we can do, really, is minimize the risk. And anything that we can improve -- as I say, because we're looking at structures and different mechanisms to make it better.

Drivers have also benefited from other NASA-inspired technologies, things like improved brakes, oil seals, specialized safety seats, accelerometers, and many, many other things.

(Johnny): So who are these daredevils that take these risks every day?

Well, I caught up with a few drivers to find out how technology's not only helping them drive better but be safe too.

(Tony Kanaan): If you're a race car driver, you're never gonna fear that something's gonna happen to you. Obviously, it's good to have the safety, but we're always gonna be in the risk. There's never gonna be 100 percent safe.

(Man on radio): Car in front. Yellow flag, yellow flag, yellow. Great job, Tony.

(Tony Kanaan): It makes us more comfortable knowing that we have an extra safety devices. We have the HANS device, which is -- it's a device that we put around our necks, and it's attached to the helmet. 'Cause if you had a head crash, your neck wouldn't snap, so you wouldn't break your neck, and then all the other things I talked about.

But there's so many variables that can happen on the streets that don't happen here that I would feel a lot safer in the race track than in actually on the streets.

(Marco Andretti): Now, I mean, we have the seats molded to us. I mean, everything -- I mean, it's all really compact. The cars are meant to disintegrate. Like, so it takes less G-forces off of us, exactly. So, you know, we still -- as drivers, we don't like to even talk about it, but...

(Johnny): Of course not.

(Marco Andretti): But, no, it's great. I mean, you know, it seems, as long as these cars stay on the ground that you're safe. So it's come, definitely, a long way. Not as far as maybe NASA, but…


(Johnny): All right, so we found out a few technologies that some race car engineers are using that originally came from NASA. But do you think NASA can learn anything from an Indy car? [laughs] You better believe it.

Check it out. Right now NASA is planning missions back to the moon and on to Mars. The capsule NASA will be using is called the Orion. And even through Orion looks similar to the old Apollo capsule, it's a brand-new, state-of-the-art spacecraft that'll hold between four and six crew members.

Now, if you recall, when the old Apollo capsules returned from the moon, they splashed down into the ocean, right? Well, that worked well for the Apollo, but today NASA scientists are researching whether the Orion will come down in the ocean or if they want it to come down on land.

Either way, some serious work is going into understanding how to protect astronauts from injury during landing. Although NASA has tons of data on what astronauts may experience during landing, they're also working with IndyCar to look at their data, too.

This is because IndyCar has detailed data for every crash since 1996. As you can imagine, when a car hits the wall at 200 miles per hour (322 kph), the occupant will experience huge G-loads, so it's a no-brainer that IndyCar and NASA will be working hand-in-hand to produce better protection strategies for both drivers and astronauts.

NASA will use much of the data to help design optimum seat configurations to help minimize risks to our crews upon reentry and landing, while IndyCar will benefit by having NASA researchers design the seat configurations that may also help keep race drivers safe.

So whether in spacecraft or in race cars, both groups are working hard to provide the best protection for vehicle occupants.

[engine whines]

(Jennifer): Okay, earlier in the show, we talked about how NASA is planning on sending astronauts back to the moon and then on to Mars, remember?

All right, well, here's a question for you. Where are they gonna live once they get there?

The most likely, during the first few missions astronauts will live on the spacecraft that got them there. But as they begin to stay for longer and longer periods of time, NASA's really gonna need to provide some permanent living quarters. So are we talking condos? Are we talking apartments on the moon? Not quite.

What will astronaut housing look like on the moon and Mars, and how will it be constructed?

Let me tell you. Right now, the leading candidate for moon and Mars habitats are something called "inflatable structures," like these guys right here. Now, these structures are kind of similar to those giant blow-up bounce houses you might find at your state fair or at a birthday party.

However, the inflatable structures that NASA's looking at are as tough as nails. They're hard as steel, and they're able to withstand the rigors of space as well as the different environments of Mars and the moon. I spoke with Judith Watson at NASA Langley to find out how these inflatable structures are gonna work.

(Judith Watson): Inflatables have been around for a long time. If you go back as early as the early satellites like the Echo, that was actually a balloon that we orbited all in space. That was an inflatable structure. As early as the 1960s, Werner von Braun was considering using inflatables on a space station orbiting the Earth. So they've been around for a long time.

More recently in the '90s, we started looking at a possibility of one as part of space station to give the astronauts a little bit more room. So it's not that uncommon. It's been around for a while, and now we want to take it and take a look at it.

Is it good enough for the astronauts to live in on the moon? We're actually looking at materials like Kevlar and Vectran, which are very sturdy fabric materials. We'll use a bladder that's a polyethylene-coated type material, so it's sort of a rubber coating to it, to help hold the atmosphere in.

Your Kevlar, your Vectran, which is like webbing, acts like a restraint layer and holds the load, so you have a very sturdy fabric material holding in the atmosphere. Then you put other layers on top of that to protect it thermally from the changes in temperature. It gets quite hot and quite cold on the moon. We also have to look out for radiation problems for the crew.

The moon is gonna be like living on a vacuum, so you don't have an atmosphere. We don't have air. We have to take that with us. We have the micrometeoroid threat, which means there's small, little rocks, varying sizes that come through very fast at very high speeds, much faster than even a bullet comes through on Earth, that can hit the structure and punch a hole in it. And that's the same whether it's steel, composite, or an inflatable structure. So whatever we put up there, we have to put up a protection layer to protect against that.

(Jennifer): Judith, I have to tell you, I'm dying to touch that, just to see if I can kind of push it. Can we go over, and can I take a look?

(Judith Watson): Sure, sure, come on over. It can be hard at steel. Right now, it's only pressurized, like 0.1 psi (70 ksm) . We want to go to 9 psi (6,328 ksm), so that's like going from 1 to 100, so it gets a lot stiffer. So if you push on this, you can push on it a little bit.

(Jennifer): Yeah, it has a little give to it.

(Judith Watson): It has a little give. But in reality, once you really bring it up in pressure the way that it's going to be on the moon, it's gonna be as hard as steel.

To give you an example of it, here's my trusty basketball. Basketballs are basically inflatabLes in their own right. They have a certain type of material on them. They're actually even coated with rubber, not unlike what we're gonna coat the inside of this guy. And if you think about it, they're pretty darn hard…

(Jennifer): They are.

(Judith Watson): So they can bounce. So it's gonna be a very similar principle. We're gonna put enough pressure in there that this thing's gonna be very hard.

(Jennifer): Judith, if I'm an astronaut on the moon, how do I get into an inflatable structure? If it's pressurized, when I walk into it or go into it, isn't it gonna affect the pressure?

(Judith Watson): It will, and that's why we have air locks. So if you want to step around this way, I can show you the air lock and how it operates.

And we can open the door, and you can step inside. And here you go!

(Jennifer): Oh, wow! This is amazing. Earlier, you were talking about the bladder. Okay, describe what you mean by the bladder of this structure.

(Judith Watson): Okay, the bladder's this inside layer. It's coated in polyethylene, which is like a rubber, and that's to keep the air from going out. The idea is, we don't want this even leaking a little bit. Anything in space is gonna leak a very small amount, so we want them to keep their air as long as possible.

So we've got that on the inside, and it usually doesn't maintain the structure, the tension that's caused by the air. It's just here to protect the air from going out.

(Jennifer): Okay.

(Judith Watson): So it's a little bit larger, so then we get little wrinkles sometimes if it's not totally inflated.

(Jennifer): And it's stretchable.

(Judith Watson): Very stretchable.

(Jennifer): Very stretchable.

(Judith Watson): So that's what the inside is made of.

(Jennifer): All right, Judith. I think we're equalized. We ready to go?

(Judith Watson): Sure thing.

(Jennifer): That is so cool!

(Judith Watson): I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I was very happy to show it to you.

(Jennifer): So we know NASA's not just going to send up these inflatable structures to the moon or Mars without testing them first. But where on Earth do you test these structures to make sure they can withstand the rigors of space?

NASA packed an inflatable structure habitat and sent it down to McMurdo station, Antarctica, where the focus was to see how easy it was to deploy and how it held up under those harsh conditions. A small group unpacked and set up the inflatable, then began to inflate it.

Once the inflatable was laid out and secured, about six minutes later it was fully inflated and ready to be used. This is good news, because although the conditions are tough down in Antarctica, it will probably be just a little bit harder on the moon, where astronauts have to carry their own oxygen and work inside bulky space suits.

You may wonder if this inflatable structure can actually hold up on the moon and Mars. Why doesn't NASA just send up rigid structures?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, but two of the most important are storage and weight.

Right now this huge inflatable structure can fold up into a very small space for shipment to the moon, and it's considerably lighter than rigid structures. Now, this is important. To land 1 pound (0.45 kg) of supplies on the lunar surface, NASA must launch 125 pounds (56.7 kg) of hardware and fuel to get it there.

Another benefit is that this inflatable structure can be taken down and redeployed multiple times, permitting exploration beyond the initial landing area. So it looks like NASA is on the right track.

(Johnny): Okay, so earlier in the program, we showed you how NASA's working with the IndyCar series to help make changes in safety and technology, but they're not the only racing series that NASA's working with.

That's right. NASA's also helping NASCAR to help make improvements in their cars too.

Of course, many of the NASA technologies found in IndyCar and in NASCAR are the same, but there are some unique characteristics found in stock car not found in IndyCar. So what are they?

I cruised down to Morrisville, North Carolina, to speak with one of the premiere teams in all of racing, Team Penske.

Can you tell me some things that NASA's been influential with auto racing?

(Dr. Kent Day): Yeah, yeah, in fact, we've got some good applications that we use right here. A lot of them are related to how we protect the driver, keep his head in the game, so to speak. Obviously, one of the by-products of combustion is carbon monoxide: bad stuff.

(Johnny): Now, many drivers have complained about headaches, nausea, and dizziness. So to help these drivers with this type of sickness, Team Penske once again worked with NASA.

The solution came from a NASA project called "the low temperature oxidation catalyst" that was originally designed for use on space-based atmospheric lasers.

So Penske engineers took the basic idea from NASA and then designed a catalytic air filter that removes over 99 percent of all airborne particles. Once the particles are removed, the air is cooled and pumped into the driver's helmet, giving them fresh, clean air. With this new development, carbon monoxide sickness in drivers may soon be a thing of the past.

And this may seem pretty obvious, but one key difference between IndyCar and NASCAR is that NASCAR vehicles have a roof. So why is it so important? Well, one big factor is heat.

In an Indy car, the driver's exposed to a 200-mile-per-hour wind stream which keeps them relatively cool. But in a stock car, the roof keeps a lot of the heat inside, allowing temperatures to reach upwards of 160 degrees (71° C).

To combat this, NASCAR teams began insulating car cockpits with the same type of thermal protection system that protects the space shuttle when it reenters the Earth's atmosphere. This addition only added four pounds (1.8 kg) to the car but cut the heat inside by over 50 degrees (a change of about 28° C).

(Dr. Kent Day): We're always questioning the design. First thing is, we have what's called a scale model program. We have a car just like this, but it's 45 percent of that in every detail. We'll blow that and do design studies on that to figure out, you know, how things work.

(Johnny): Right.

(Dr. Kent Day): Second thing is, we'll take these full cars, and we'll blow them in a wind tunnel, you know.

(Johnny): Sure, NASA wind tunnel.

(Dr. Kent Day): We've done it at Langley. There you are -- Langley. Another way is purely theoretical, to use computational fluid dynamics to look at the flow of the car, which is all mathematical. If you take all of those approaches and combine them, you know, you start to get a full understanding of what's going on and how to make it faster.

(Johnny): Doctor, what inspired you to become an engineer?

(Dr. Kent Day): Well, NASA had a huge role in it. I grew up in that community, watched all the moon launches from my front yard. So it was just a part of that culture. And science and technology and engineering as applied science, it was a natural for me. So I couldn't say no. Haven't regretted it since.

(Johnny): So, Kent, thanks so much for having us down here at Penske racing.

(Dr. Kent Day): No problem.

(Johnny): Definitely, and we'll be seeing you at the next race.

(Dr. Kent Day): Enjoyed it.

(Johnny): Take care.

So we have learned a lot today about exploration and how NASA technologies are helping out in auto racing. And with us going back to the moon and on to Mars, there's no doubt that tons of these NASA technologies will be converted to be used in our everyday lives.

Yeah, for Jennifer Pulley, I'm Johnny Alonso. Catch you next time on NASA 360.


(Johnny): To help us find out about cutting technology… Two – cutting-edge.

(Jennifer): What about the most… blehh.

(Johnny): And how NASA technologies are helping out… Again?

(Johnny): Dozens of NASA… No… Yeah. Ready. Okay, so what does that… [points to car]

(Johnny): So Kent, thanks for having me down here at Penske racing.

(Dr. Kent Day): No problem.

(Johnny): And we'll be rooting for you… Two. Do it again. So Kent, thanks so much for having us down here at Penske racing.

(Dr. Kent Day): No problem. Come back any time, enjoyed it.

(Johnny): Definitely, and we'll be voting for you… Geez, I can't get this done! They're moving the car… Voting? Rooting!

(Jennifer): Or actually, it can be found… Ahh!

(Johnny): So to find out what some more of these NASA-inspired technologies are, I came here… [laughs] That was it!

(Johnny): Driving in the family car or zipping around in an Indy car, sure bet that -- uh -- whatever. The last line.


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