NASA Podcasts

NASA 360 Season 2, Show 12
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IN THIS EPISODE (in order of appearance):


[upbeat electronic music]

[upbeat electronic music] [ethereal music]

Jennifer: Chances are you've never been to the moon, but whether you know it or not, NASA is part of your everyday life.

Johnny: That's right. A lot of technology and research that was designed originally for space has been transformed into products that you and I use each and every day. They're called spin-offs.

Jennifer: today on NASA 360, we're going to take a look at some of our favorite spin-offs in your home, your city, and your life. [mid-tempo rock music]

Jennifer: There's no place like home, and in your home, there are probably a few things that you rely on that at some point in time came from NASA technology, starting with a good night's sleep. Ever heard of temper foam or memory foam? [upbeat carnival music]

Jennifer: Well, more than a few companies use temper foam to make mattresses, but originally, temper foam was developed for space flight. Back in the 1960s during the Apollo program, NASA set out to design flight seats that could provide extra comfort and shock absorption for astronauts. The result of their research was a special kind of plastic called open-cell polyurethane silicone. It's temperature-sensitive and pressure-sensitive, meaning it reacts to body temperature, getting softer when warm and firmer when cool.

Jennifer: It distributes weight evenly and is super shock-absorbent. That's why it's used in mattresses and pillows, but it's also used in aircrafts, cars, even wheelchairs. [upbeat electronic music]

Jennifer: Who doesn't have one of these at home? [drill whirs] cordless power tools are another NASA spin-off. NASA didn't invent the cordless power drill, but they did help to make it a whole lot better. [whirring] when NASA contracted Black & Decker to design tools for them, the company had already unveiled their amazing cordless power tools. For NASA, the tool company developed a zero-impact wrench for the Gemini project. That spun bolts in zero gravity without spinning the astronaut. They also designed a cordless rotary hammer drill for the Apollo moon program. But before sending the tools to space, Black & Decker and NASA tested the tools at extreme temperatures and in zero-atmosphere and zero-gravity conditions. As a result of this research, Black & Decker created several spin-offs, including cordless, lightweight, battery-powered precision medical instruments... [upbeat electronic music]

Jennifer: And a cordless miniature vacuum cleaner called the Dustbuster. Knowing that makes housecleaning a lot more exciting. [upbeat carnival music]

Jennifer: NASA also helps make existing products better, like this. Okay, so this is ordinary house paint, right? Okay, NASA didn't invent that. But if you add this to your ordinary house paint, your paint becomes insulating paint. Check it out. These ceramic microspheres create a heat-reflecting thermal layer that keeps your house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Pretty neat, huh? This is the result of insulation technology originally designed in the 1980s for use on the space shuttle's solid rocket boosters. The original process was costly and toxic, but after collaborating with some like-minded small businesses, NASA helped create this cost-efficient and non-toxic insulator used on homes, businesses, boats, and, of course, in the aerospace industry. This is the ultimate in green technology. It cuts energy costs, and it's so safe, oh, you can even eat it. I think i'll pass.

Jennifer: Hey, did you know that NASA helped make better plasma displays similar to this one? NASA experts in advanced metals, ceramics, and glass helped the top producers of plasma screens to create non-distorting, non-discoloring, and multi-contour microspheres, the key component for novel plasma displays. These advancements are finding their way to better displays in stadiums, cities, and even your tv set at home.Iknow that guy. NASA spin-offs really are everywhere we look. Water: it's one of the most basic necessities of mankind, but unfortunately, safe, clean water isn't always readily available. Johnny Alonso is at NASA Ames Research Center in California to learn how technology designed for space is providing safe, clean water where we need it most here on earth. [funky electronic music]

Johnny: At almost 8 pounds per gallon, sending sufficient drinking water into outer space is an expensive proposition. That's why NASA created a water purification technology that could easily recycle every drop of water generated during a mission. We're talking sweat, exhaled water vapor, shower water, and now...urine. While drinking your own pee in space sounds totally insane, what's even more disturbing is that over 1 billion people worldwide lack access to sufficient quantities of water to survive. As a result, 10 million people die each year from waterborne diseases. NASA is sharing its water purification technology with private companies to create affordable, portable systems that cleanse any readily available water. This is going to make a huge difference in the lives of people who live in remote or developing areas, where water is scarce or contaminated. Here at NASA Ames, a guy like Sherwin Gormly is a mastermind behind some of this recycling technology. Oh, and his work is never done.

Johnny: What's up, man?

Sherwin: Hey.

Johnny: Hey, what are you working on?

Sherwin: Well, I like to think I'm working on the best gray-water processor in the world. You basically put your dirty shower water in on one side of this membrane, and what you get out the other little blue line here is something that has about 98% to 99% of all of the stuff that you don't want removed. This same membrane that we have in this device is actually being marketed for aide workers. You would simply drop this can into, like, any contaminated river or lake or pond, and you would set this membrane down into it, and you hook up this bag full of sugar concentrate. So this is basically lemonade concentrate. Pop it into the top end, and immediately, you start getting lemonade.

Johnny: all right, what do we got?

Sherwin: well, let's say you're trapped in that capsule, and you're floating around in the ocean for a very long time, and you really have nothing but urine to work with. We put the treated urine in on one side. You put some type of sugar drink mix in on the other side. So two, three hours later, you have your sports drink concentrate.

Johnny: Yeah, this is a tried-and-true technology?

Sherwin: Oh, yeah.

Johnny: You've tried it before?

Sherwin: It tastes good.

Johnny: Yeah?

Sherwin: Yeah, we're good to go.

Johnny: I take your word for it. Thank you so much, man. well, we can give you one on the way out.

Johnny: next episode, maybe.

Sherwin: okay.

Johnny: don't go anywhere. NASA 360 will be right back with more NASA spin-offs. [upbeat instrumental music]

Jennifer: Whether we're at work, at home, or in between, technology originally designed for use in space has made its way into our everyday lives. [cell phone rings] oh, hang on a second.

Johnny: Jennifer.

Jennifer: Hey, Johnny. I love modern technology.

Johnny: Yeah, me too, super-fast wireless communication, gps, and that's just the stuff on my phone. Hey, even this headset's a NASA spin-off inspired by the same technology that brought Neil Armstrong's voice from the moon back over to NASA's control station.

Jennifer: You're right, that is pretty cool, but don't get me started. How about NASA technology in the field of medicine? Uh, we would have to do a whole separate episode for that, Johnny.

Johnny: I'll get started on that right away, but in the meantime, take a closer look around you. I bet you you'd find a little NASA in your world. Take, for instance, the golden gate bridge. The coating that now protects the golden gate bridge was originally developed by NASA for rockets and space vehicles. It was designed to control corrosion caused by uv radiation, rocket exhaust gases, and extreme temperatures. Today the applications are far-reaching: highway and bridge infrastructures, piers and docks, concrete balconies and ceilings, parking garages, cooling towers, pipelines. All stay strong because of this amazing NASA spin-off.

Jennifer: I know what you're thinking: what do my groceries have to do with NASA? Well, astronauts eat too, you know. And when they were planning the first manned space missions, NASA realized that food in an enclosed zero-g environment needed two important things: one, to be free of all crumbs, and two, it needed to be free of any and all disease-producing bacteria or toxins. [upbeat electronic music]

Jennifer: To learn how to keep food in space safe, NASA enlisted the help of a major food manufacturer. For them, keeping crumbs under control was an easy problem to solve. But when it came to keeping bacteria at bay, they found that there was no easy solution. It was concluded that the only way to succeed was to establish control over the entire process from the raw materials, the processing environment, and even the people involved in making the food, and so the hazard analysis and critical control point concept was developed, a process designed to prevent food safety problems rather than catch them after they've occurred.

Jennifer: These food safety principles have been so effective that they're still in effect in processing food eaten each and every day in space and in your home. Oh, fresh produce in space sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, we won't have gardens in space any time soon, but you can be sure NASA's working on it. In fact, their research on plant growth chambers has already resulted in benefits for us here on earth. How? Well, you may not know it, but plants produce a natural hormone called ethylene. It's like a chemical cue that tells them to begin ripening. And when you get a bunch of plants together, too much ethylene means premature spoilage. Plants grown in NASA's growth chambers had the same problem, but researchers quickly devised new technology that scrubs ethylene from the air and prevents premature aging. And now, that same ethylene removal technology is being used to keep produce in the markets fresher longer, and the device is capable of cleaning the air of 98% of harmful airborne pathogens.

Jennifer: It could be used in hospitals, schools, airplanes. It turns out rocket science is good for the health of your fruit... And your family. Here's one spin-off you might not know about. NASA technology is in your baby's food. That's right. 99% of all infant formulas contain a nutritional supplement that came from NASA-sponsored research. It came about when NASA became interested in the potential of algae as a recycling agent for long-duration space travel. The research resulted with an algae-based vegetable-like oil that contains two essential polyunsaturated fatty acids: dha and ara. These are the same fatty acids found in human breast milk, and they play an important role in mental and visual development. But this supplement is good for more than just babies. I mean, it's in yogurt, cheeses, juice, milk. So the next time your mom tells you to eat your veggies, tell her you'd rather eat your algae.

Johnny: Your mother also told you not to play with matches. Luckily, firefighting equipment today has also benefited from NASA research. Lightweight, fire-resistant, heat-protected materials originally developed for use in astronaut's space suits or in spacecraft are now helping firefighters work safely, quickly, and efficiently. The radio and breathing systems crucial to successful firefighting are also lighter and more efficient than ever before thanks to engineering borrowed from NASA. Here in California where forest fires are a concern, firefighting requires a much bigger perspective. NASA's remote-sensing technology provides real-time information to commanders in the field so they'll know how a fire is developing and where it's spreading, and from a distance, that's safe for everyone.

Johnny: One NASA spin-off that has come full circle is solar energy. People have been harnessing the sun's power since the beginning of time. Solar power then became the primary source of power for all NASA's missions, the most impressive of which has got to be the international space station. But these aren't the be-all end-all of solar energy. Nope, because NASA never stops working to make technology more efficient and lighter. They pushed the limits of solar energy efficiency by creating a lightweight solar panel that performs like a heavyweight. Already these thin-film solar cells are on the market, and they're turning out to be a popular and affordable green energy option. They use a fine layer of semiconducting material to convert sunlight into energy, which means they're cheaper to make and easier to install, but that's just the beginning. In the near future, solar energy might be beamed down to us by solar panels that are floating in low-earth orbit. Now, that's never been done before, but for NASA, that challenge makes for just another regular day on the job.

Johnny: We've got plenty more NASA spin-offs when we return, so don't go anywhere. NASA 360 will be back in a flash.

Johnny: We know NASA research and technology has lent itself to hundreds of commercial products in our homes and the cities that surround us, but sometimes we need to borrow NASA technology to help perfect some of the good things in life. Take, for instance, this wine. For hundreds of years, winegrowers have known that grapes harvested in different areas of their vineyards can produce wines with unique flavors and tastes. Many winemakers are now using NASA's advanced remote-sensing technologies to understand the subtle nuances of their vineyards. They can identify vine vigor to see weak and strong areas of growth in the vineyard, then break up how they harvest. That's a process that used to take decades.

Johnny: Now, it takes just months. NASA's remote sensing of vineyards has also been used to track bacterial and fungal infections caused by insects. These pests have devastated vineyards and orchards from California to Florida and south as far as central America. Who knew that technology designed for up there could help make the quality of life down here so much better? Cheers.

Jennifer: When you think of space and science and technology, what comes to mind? Probably spaceships, astronauts, scientists in white lab coats, and... [cheers and applause] baseball? Probably not, but believe it or not, NASA technology has resulted in spin-offs that are very much a part of an athletic lifestyle. Swing, bat-tah.

Jennifer: let's start with clothing. Thanks to NASA, workout gear is now designed to interact with the unique microclimate of the human body. Sounds pretty high tech, doesn't it? That's because it is. In 1988, NASA began working with private industry to develop thermally adaptive phase-change materials that could be applied to astronauts' suits and gloves for better protection against the bitter cold and scorching heat encountered in space. Their research resulted in the creation of adaptive phase-changing materials. Phase-change materials have the ability to store heat and then re-release it to moderate the temperature between the body and the environment and keep it just right. Whoo! All right, now, that's what I call smart fashion.

[upbeat electronic music]

Jennifer: Space suit technology has also been applied to athletic shoes. Thanks to the work of an award-winning NASA space suit engineer, today's athletic shoes are more durable and provide custom comfort for a healthier foot. That's because they're designed with a special midsole that works like a compression chamber: stiff on the outside and cushiony on the inside. Midsole technology is where it's at. It makes shoes lighter but provides more stability and shock absorption than ever before. [upbeat rock music]

Jennifer: From mattresses to sneakers, cushiony foam may be one of the most-used NASA spin-offs around. Not only does it keep us comfortable. It keeps us safe. From little league to college and pro athletes, safety gear is vital to keeping athletes safe from injury. Almost all protective sporting equipment, including bicycle helmets and car seats, use temper foam for shock reduction.

[dramatic music]

Johnny: Recognize this photo? On January 20, 2009, photographer David Bergman took this picture of president Obama's inauguration, but it's not just any picture. When you click on any part of it, you can zoom in to see incredible detail. But what's really cool is that this technology is the same technology that the mars rovers use to take the images of the red planet. That's right. Inspired by the vast landscapes the mars rovers could produce, engineers at NASA Ames Research Center and Carnegie Mellon University decided to find more down-to-earth applications for this technology.

Johnny: And what they came up with was this: Gigapan. Now, I'm here in twin peaks with my good friend Rich Gibson from NASA Ames Research Center, and what we're gonna do is take a picture of this.

Rich: This is the Gigapan imager.

Johnny: Yes.

Rich: This is a robotic platform that takes your camera, most any normal small digital camera, rotates it on this robotic platform, and can vary it up and down, and then takes pictures with this robotic finger. It can take dozens, hundreds, thousands of pictures even. –

Johnny: Yeah.

Rich: So and once we've taken those pictures, we can put them all together with software that we have and upload them to the web, where you can explore them in stunning detail.

Johnny: Okay, could we try one?

Rich: Absolutely.

Johnny: Let's take a look at this.

Rich: So in order to program this, we want to pick the top left and the lower right that we want for our shot.

Johnny: All right, how about

Rich: We can also do 360 degrees.

Johnny: But if I had to choose, can we go towards the Golden Gate?

Rich:Absolutely. And then I'm going to rotate it this way.

Johnny: Let's take it from...

Rich: How far do we want to go?

Johnny: Go towards there. Just right there.

Rich: Okay, there we are. So this is set. It's gonna take 34 pictures this way, 18 up and down, moves up to our beautiful Golden Gate off there in the distance.

Johnny: totally.

Rich: Once all the pictures are taken, we'll take the card out, take it to my friend terry fong, and he'll stitch them together.

Johnny: That sounds great. So how's it looking?

Terry: It's looking great, but, you know, your photo is not just one photo. It's actually 90 photos, and that's, like, 3 1/2 billion pixels. So you've got the whole city here.

Johnny: Yeah, this is my shot.

Terry: This is your shot.

Johnny: Yo.

Terry: We can start zooming in, and what's over here? Hey, look, that's the golden gate bridge.

Johnny: look at this, man. Oh, wow.

Terry: You can get all the way in. You can see the cars on the bridge.

[upbeat rock music]

Terry: What's great about this is that this is exactly the same sort of software that we use for looking at mars. It's the same thing that we use to let scientists take a look at different things on other planets.

Johnny: What are some of the applications here on earth?

Terry: There are tons of applications here on earth. You can use it for education. We're working with Unesco for cross-cultural awareness between school kids.

Johnny: Cool.

Terry: You can use it for journalism. Sports Illustrated's taken this out to various sporting events, all kinds of great things you can do right here on earth...

Johnny: So these just aren't, you know, pretty pictures, you know? Doctor, thank you for your time. Right on.

Johnny: Getting from earth to space is no easy task and requires an incredible amount of testing: wind tunnels, extreme temperatures, extreme volumes, extreme vibrations. But all that testing leads to new knowledge, which is then applied to products that we use every day. [acoustic guitar music]

Johnny: Yeah, like this guitar. Yeah, this guitar. A company that originally developed helicopters is now making these ovation guitars. Yeah.

[mid-tempo funky guitar music]

Johnny: The engineers there used vibration analysis equipment originally used to locate and eliminate vibration. In this case, the technology was used to make the perfect vibration.

[acoustic guitar music]

Johnny: Whether it's technology designed to help save lives or just trying to make the best things in life a little better, these spin-offs are the tangible benefits of the work NASA's doing in space. Hey, for Jennifer pulley, I'm Johnny Alonso. We'll catch you next time on NASA 360.

[acoustic guitar music]

Jennifer: Thanks to NASA, workout gear-- [loud wah-wah horn] is now designed to--awwww.

Johnny: Hey, what's going on, man? Ah, what are you working on?

Sherwin: It's a time machine.

Johnny: That's not in the script.

Jennifer: Unfortunately, we won't-- oops. There goes an apple.

Johnny: Whether it's technological-- Wrong line.

Jennifer: Our time clock is ticking, Johnny. Are you done with your line yet? [laughs]

Christina: Do you play country or western?

Johnny: I play both.

Jennifer: Hey, there's Johnny.

Johnny: Wait, let me get that phone call really quickly.

Jennifer: Yeah, hang on. It's paisan on the phone. Yeah, uh-huh. Yeah. Oh, Johnny. I love you. Yeah, I love you, Johnny. Love ya.

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