Made with Space Technology

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Made with Space Technology

To meet the many goals of space exploration and aeronautical development, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the aerospace industry sought many innovations in a number of science and technology fields. This storehouse of knowledge has provided a broad technical foundation for stimulating secondary applications of these different developments. Each application is a result of "spinoffs" of both space and aeronautical research.

A spinoff is a technology that has been transferred to uses other than the purpose for which it was developed. In the early twenty-first century, it is difficult to find an area in everyday life into which a spinoff has not penetrated, yet many people are unaware of the existence of these breakthroughs.

Spinoffs in Medical Applications

Walking through the emergency ward of modern hospitals reveals many changes in equipment stemming from early U.S. manned space programs like Apollo .

Materials in Wheelchairs.

The spacecraft and rockets used to take humans to the Moon were developed from new materials that were lightweight yet very strong. Engineers developed new methods of construction and new alloys and composite materials for these missions. Many of these new developments found use in everyday life here on Earth.

An advanced wheelchair is one example. To address the needs of the wheelchair user, researchers at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia and the University of Virginia's Rehabilitation Engineering Center developed a wheelchair made from aerospace composite materials much lighter but stronger than common metals.

This 25-pound wheelchair offers the strength and weight-bearing capability of a normal 50-pound wheelchair, which can also be collapsed for storage and transport. Robotic and teleoperator technologies for space-related programs have also been adapted to develop a voice-controlled wheelchair and manipulator as an aid to paralyzed and severely handicapped people. At the heart of this system is a voice-controlled analyzer that uses a minicomputer. The patient speaks a command into a microphone connected to a computer that translates the commands into electrical signals, which then activates appropriate motors to cause the desired motion of the wheelchair or manipulator. The manipulator can pick up objects, open doors, turn knobs, and perform a variety of other functions.

The Unistick.

Another breakthrough for the handicapped from the space program is called Unistick. For the later Apollo Moon landings in the early 1970s, NASA developed a Lunar Rover that allowed astronauts to drive around on the lunar surface, greatly enhancing their ability to explore more of the Moon around their landing site. The rover was designed to allow an astronaut to drive one-handed, using an aircraft-like joystick to steer, accelerate, and brake the vehicle. On Earth, this technology is being applied to a system that allows people who have no lower limbs to drive with the use of a joystick, which combines the functions of a steering wheel, brake pedal, and accelerator.

MRI Technology.

Another spinoff into the medical field is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which enables magnetic field and radio waves to peer inside the body. Unlike X rays, MRI is able to see into bones. By applying computerized image enhancement technology developed to read Earth-resources satellite photographs, experts have been able to provide thermatic maps of the human body, using color to indicate different types of tissue, making tumors or blood clots easy to find.

Nitinol in Dentistry.

In dentistry, straightening teeth requires months or even years of applying corrective pressure by means of arch wires, or braces. A new type of arch-wire material called Nitinol now helps reduce the number of brace changes because of its elasticity. This new material, an alloy of titanium and nickel, has an ability to return to its original shape after bending. Many satellite antennas or other hardware could be compacted inside a satellite during launch, then later expanded to full size when in space. This same property allows braces made of Nitinol to exert continuous pull on teeth, reducing the number of dentist visits and changes in braces.

Spinoffs in Other Applications

The field of firefighting and fire prevention has benefited greatly from aerospace spinoffs. Spinoff applications include protective outer garments for workers in hazardous environments, a broad range of fire-retardant paints, foams and ablative coatings for outdoor structures, and different types of flame-resistant fabrics for use in the home, office, and public transportation vehicles. Many new flame-resistant materials, primarily developed to minimize fire hazards in the space shuttle, have resulted in new, lightweight substances that resist ignition. When exposed to open flame, the material decomposes. This same material is now used in the production of seat cushions and panels for doors, walls, floors, and ceilings. This new fire-resistant material has particular application to commercial aircraft, ships, buses, and rapid-transit trains, where toxic smoke is the major cause of fire fatalities.

One of the biggest fire-related technology transfers is the breathing apparatus worn by firefighters for protection against smoke inhalation. Until the 1970s the breathing apparatus used by firefighters was large, heavy, and restrictive. The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, developed a breathing system weighing one-third less than conventional systems. The system included a face mask, frame and harness, warning device, and an air bottle. In the early twenty-first century, many breathing systems incorporate space technology in some form.

Anticorrosion paints, developed for many structures at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, have found a market in an easily applied paint that incorporates a high ratio of potassium silicate, but which is water-based, nontoxic and nonflammable. With these properties, a hard ceramic finish with superior adhesion and abrasion resistance is formed within an hour of application. Once applied to many structures that are exposed to salt spray and fog (such as bridges, pipelines, and ships), the lifespan of these structures can be dramatically increased.

As of the early years of the twenty-first century, more than 30,000 applications of space technology have been brought down to Earth to enhance our everyday life.

see also Made in Space (volume 1).

Nick Proach

Internet Resources

Mad Sci Network. "What Benefits to Science Have There Been Because of Manned Space Flight?" Washington University Medical School. <>.

Spinoff: Commercialized NASA Technology. NASA Spinoff Database. <>.

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