When the gods dance...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Why is a program that generates far more than it costs on the chopping block?

NASA expenditures cost the nation less than 1% GDP:  around $4 billion a year.  The intangible benefits of space exploration —  expansion of our understanding of the universe;  pride in scientific achievement;  inspiration for young scientists;  firing curiosity in students and adults alike — are legion.  We are becoming an increasingly unimaginative, bean-counter culture.  Our national space R&D programs have generated many, many beans to be counted.  Aside from creating jobs and fueling local economies, these are some of the concrete spinoffs of our space program.

Why is a program that generates far more than it costs on the chopping block?  


From a Wikipedia article based on NASA's Spinoff publication

A NASA spin-off is a spin-off of technology that has been commercialized through NASA funding, research, licensing, facilities, or assistance. NASA also publishes an annual journal titled Spinoff which features products whose development can be linked to NASA, for example through NASA funding (such as SBIR or STTR awards), licensing (from NASA patents), facilities (such as product testing at NASA facilities), NASA assistance (such as former NASA scientists helping to design a product), or NASA research.

In 1978, notable science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein was asked to appear before a joint committee of the House and Senate after recovering from one of the earliest known carotid bypass operations to correct a blocked artery that was causing transient ischemic attacks; in his testimony, reprinted in the book Expanded Universe, he characterized the technology that made the surgery possible as merely one of a long list of spinoff technologies from space development.

NASA spin-off technologies

For more than 40 years, the NASA Innovative Partnerships Program has connected NASA resources to private industry, referring to the commercial products as spin-offs. Well-known products that NASA claims as spin-offs include memory foam (originally named temper foam), freeze-dried food, firefighting equipment, emergency "space blankets", Dustbusters, cochlear implants, and now Speedo's LZR Racer swimsuits. NASA claims that there are over 1650 other spin-offs in the fields of computer technology, environment and agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, recreation, and industrial productivity. Contrary to common belief, NASA did not invent Tang, Velcro, or Teflon.[1]

In 2008, NASA announced an interactive Web feature, NASA @ Home and City, which uses Flash animation to show some examples of everyday products claimed to be spin-offs.[2]

Below are 24 abstracts of products claimed by NASA to be spin-offs.

Health and medicine

Light-emitting diodes (LEDs)

The Warp 10 uses NASA LED technology to ease pain and speed healing.

The work on applying light-emitting diodes in NASA space shuttle plant growth experiments led to the development of a hand-held, high-intensity, LED unit developed by Quantum Devices Inc. The WARP 10 is said to relieve minor muscle and joint pain, stiffness,and increases local blood circulation. The WARP 10 is being used by the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Navy as a noninvasive “soldier self-care” device for minor injuries and pain. The next-generation WARP 75 has been used to relieve pain in bone marrow transplant patients, and will be used to combat the symptoms of bone atrophy, multiple sclerosis, diabetic complications, Parkinson’s disease, and in a variety of ocular applications.[3]:10-11 Light-emitting diodes for medical purposes were inducted into the Space Foundation's Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2000.

Infrared ear thermometers

Diatek Corporation and NASA developed an aural thermometer, which weighs 8 ounces (230 g) and uses infrared astronomy technology to measure the amount of energy emitted by the eardrum, the same way the temperature of stars and planets is measured. This method avoids contact with mucous membranes, and permits rapid temperature measurement of newborn or incapacitated patients. NASA supported the Diatek Corporation through the Technology Affiliates Program.[4]

Ventricular assist device

Collaboration between NASA, Dr. Michael DeBakey, Dr. George Noon, and MicroMed Technology Inc. resulted in a heart pump for patients awaiting heart transplants. The MicroMed DeBakey ventricular assist device (VAD) functions as a “bridge to heart transplant” by pumping blood until a donor heart is available. The pump is approximately one-tenth the size of other currently marketed pulsatile VADs. Because of the pump’s small size, fewer patients developed device-related infections. It can operate up to 8 hours on batteries, giving patients the mobility to do normal, everyday activities.[5]

Artificial limbs

Advancements such as Environmental Robots Inc.’s development of artificial muscle systems[6] for use in NASA space robotic and extravehicular activities have been adapted to create more functionally dynamic artificial limbs. Other commercial uses of NASA’s temper foam include moldable materials offering the natural look and feel of flesh, as well as preventing friction between the skin and the prosthesis, and heat/moisture buildup.[3]:46-49



Aircraft anti-icing systems

This ice-free airplane wing uses Thermawing's Aircraft Anti-Icing System, a NASA spin-off.

NASA funding under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and work with NASA scientists advanced the development of a thermoelectric deicing system called Thermawing, a DC-powered air conditioner for single-engine aircraft called Thermacool, and high-output alternators to run them both. Thermawing allows pilots to safely fly through ice encounters and provides pilots of single-engine aircraft the heated wing technology usually reserved for larger, jet-powered craft. Thermacool, an electric air conditioning system, uses a new compressor whose rotary pump design runs off an energy-efficient, brushless DC motor and allows pilots to use the air conditioner before the engine starts.[7]

 Highway safety

Safety grooving, the cutting of grooves in concrete to increase traction and prevent injury, was first developed to reduce aircraft accidents on wet runways. Represented by the International Grooving and Grinding Association, the industry expanded into highway and pedestrian applications. Safety grooving originated at Langley Research Center, which assisted in testing the grooving at airports and on highways. Skidding was reduced, stopping distance decreased, and a vehicle’s cornering ability on curves was increased. The process has been extended to animal holding pens, steps, parking lots, and other potentially slippery surfaces.[8]

Improved radial tires

Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company developed a fibrous material, five times stronger than steel, for NASA to use in parachute shrouds to soft-land the Vikings on the Martian surface. Recognizing the durability of the material, Goodyear expanded the technology and went on to produce a new radial tire with a tread life expected to be 10,000 miles (16,000 km) greater than conventional radials.[9]

Chemical detection

NASA contracted with Intelligent Optical Systems (IOS) to develop moisture- and pH-sensitive sensors to warn of corrosive conditions in aircraft before damage occurs. This sensor changes color in response to contact with its target. After completing the work with NASA, IOS was tasked by the U.S. Department of Defense to further develop the sensors for detecting chemical warfare agents and potential threats, such as toxic industrial compounds and nerve agents. IOS has sold the chemically sensitive fiber optic cables to major automotive and aerospace companies, who are finding a variety of uses for the devices such as aiding experimentation with nontraditional power sources, and as an economical “alarm system” for detecting chemical release in large facilities.[7]

Public safety

Video enhancing and analysis systems

Intergraph Government Solutions developed its Video Analyst System (VAS) by building on Video Image Stabilization and Registration (VISAR) technology created by NASA to help FBI agents analyze video footage. Originally used for enhancing video images from nighttime videotapes made with hand-held camcorders, VAS is a tool for video enhancement and analysis offering support of full-resolution digital video, stabilization, frame-by-frame analysis, conversion of analog video to digital storage formats, and increased visibility of filmed subjects without altering underlying footage. Aside from law enforcement and security applications, VAS has also been adapted to serve the military for reconnaissance, weapons deployment, damage assessment, training, and mission debriefing.[10]

Fire-resistant reinforcement

Built and designed by Avco Corporation, the Apollo heat shield was coated with a material whose purpose was to burn and thus dissipate energy during reentry while charring, to form a protective coating to block heat penetration. NASA subsequently funded Avco’s development of other applications of the heat shield, such as fire-retardant paints and foams for aircraft, which led to intumescent epoxy material, which expands in volume when exposed to heat or flames, acting as an insulating barrier and dissipating heat through burn-off. Further innovations include steel coatings devised to make high-rise buildings and public structures safer by swelling to provide a tough and stable insulating layer over the steel for up to 4 hours of fire protection, ultimately to slow building collapse and provide more time for escape.[11]

Firefighting equipment

Firefighting equipment in the United States is based on lightweight materials developed for the U.S. Space Program. NASA and the National Bureau of Standards created a lightweight breathing system including face mask, frame, harness, and air bottle, using an aluminum composite material developed by NASA for use on rocket casings. The broadest fire-related technology transfer is the breathing apparatus for protection from smoke inhalation injury. Additionally, NASA’s inductorless electronic circuit technology led to lower-cost, more rugged, short-range two-way radio now used by firefighters. NASA also helped develop a specialized mask weighing less than 3 ounces (85 g) to protect the physically impaired from injuries to the face and head, as well as flexible, heat-resistant materials—developed to protect the space shuttle on reentry—which are being used both by the military and commercially in suits for municipal and aircraft-rescue firefighters.[12][13][14][15]

Consumer, home, and recreation

Temper foam

Initially referred to as "slow spring back foam", temper foam matches pressure against it and slowly returns to its original form once the pressure is removed.

As the result of a program designed to develop a padding concept to improve crash protection for airplane passengers, Ames Research Center developed what is now called memory foam. Memory foam, or "Temper Foam", has been incorporated into mattresses, pillows, military and civilian aircraft, automobiles and motorcycles, sports safety equipment, amusement park rides and arenas, horseback saddles, archery targets, furniture, and human and animal prostheses. Its high-energy absorption and soft characteristics offer protection and comfort. Today, temper foam is being employed by NASCAR to provide added safety in racecars. Temper Foam was inducted into the Space Foundation Space Technology Hall of Fame in 1998.[9][16][17][13][18][5][3]:46-49

Enriched baby food

Commercially available infant formulas now contain a nutritional enrichment ingredient that traces its existence to NASA-sponsored research on algae as a recycling agent for long-duration space travel. The substance, formulated into the products life’sDHA and life’sARA and based on microalgae, can be found in over 90% of the infant formulas sold in the United States, and are added to infant formulas in over 65 other countries. Martek Biosciences Corporation's founders and principal scientists acquired their expertise in this area while working on the NASA program. The microalgae food supplement was inducted into the Space Foundation Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2009.[19]

Portable cordless vacuums

For the Apollo space mission, NASA required a portable, self-contained drill capable of extracting core samples from below the lunar surface. Black & Decker was tasked with the job, and developed a computer program to optimize the design of the drill’s motor and ensure minimal power consumption. That computer program led to the development of a cordless miniature vacuum cleaner called the Dustbuster.[13]

Freeze drying

In planning for the long-duration Apollo missions, NASA conducted extensive research into space food. One of the techniques developed in 1938 by Nestle was freeze drying. In the United States, Action Products later commercialized this technique for other foods, concentrating on snack food. The foods are cooked, quickly frozen, and then slowly heated in a vacuum chamber to remove the ice crystals formed by the freezing process. The final product retains 98%[citation needed] of its nutrition and weighs much less than before drying. The ratio of weight before and after drying depends strongly on the particular food item but a typical freeze-dried weight is 20% of the original weight. Today, one of the benefits of this advancement in food preservation includes simple nutritious meals available to handicapped and otherwise homebound senior adults unable to take advantage of existing meal programs.[12][20][21]

Environmental and agricultural resources

Water Security Corporation's Discovery Water Filtration System

Water purification

NASA engineers are collaberating with qualified companies to develop systems intended to sustain the astronauts living on the International Space Station and future Moon and space missions. This system turns wastewater from respiration, sweat, and urine into drinkable water. Commercially, this system is benefiting people all over the world who need affordable, clean water, especially in remote locations. By combining the benefits of chemical adsorption, ion exchange, and ultra-filtration processes, this technology can yield safe, drinkable water from the most challenging sources, such as in underdeveloped regions where well water may be heavily contaminated.[22][6]

Solar energy

Homes across the country are now being outfitted with high-performance single crystal silicon solar power cells that allow them to reduce their traditional energy expenditures and reduce pollution. The advanced technology behind these solar devices—which provide up to 50% more power than conventional solar cells—originated with the efforts of a NASA-sponsored 28-member coalition forming the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) Alliance. ERAST’s goal was to develop remotely piloted aircraft, intended to fly unmanned at high altitudes for days at a time and requiring advanced solar power sources that did not add weight. As a result, SunPower Corporation created advanced silicon-based cells for terrestrial or airborne applications.[3]:66-67

Pollution remediation

NASA’s microencapsulating technology enabled the creation of a "Petroleum Remediation Product," which safely cleans petroleum-based pollutants from water. The PRP uses thousands of microcapsules—tiny balls of beeswax with hollow centers. Water cannot penetrate the microcapsule’s cell, but oil is absorbed into the beeswax spheres as they float on the water’s surface. Contaminating chemical compounds that originally come from crude oil (such as fuels, motor oils, or petroleum hydrocarbons) are caught before they settle, limiting damage to ocean beds.[21][11]

Computer technology

Structural analysis software

NASA software engineers have created thousands of computer programs over the decades equipped to design, test, and analyze stress, vibration, and acoustical properties of a broad assortment of aerospace parts and structures. The NASA Structural Analysis Program, or NASTRAN, is considered one of the most successful and widely-used NASA software programs. It has been used to design everything from Cadillacs to roller coaster rides. Originally created for spacecraft design, NASTRAN has been employed in a host of non-aerospace applications and is available to industry through NASA’s Computer Software Management and Information Center (COSMIC). COSMIC maintains a library of computer programs from NASA and other government agencies and sells them at a fraction of the cost of developing a new program. NASA Structural Analysis Computer Software was inducted into the Space Foundation Space Technology Hall of Fame in 1988[9][16][12][17][20][13][14][23][18][24][4][25]

Remotely controlled ovens

Embedded Web Technology (EWT) software—originally developed by NASA for use by astronauts operating experiments on the International Space Station—lets a user monitor and/or control a device remotely over the Internet. NASA supplied this technology and guidance to TMIO LLC, which developed remote control and monitoring of a new intelligent oven product named “ConnectIo.” With combined cooling and heating capabilities, ConnectIo refrigerates food until a customized pre-programmable cooking cycle begins. The menu allows the user to simply enter the dinner time, and the oven automatically switches from refrigeration to the cooking cycle, so that the meal will be ready as the family arrives home for dinner.[3]

Industrial productivity

Powdered lubricants

Oil-free coating PS300 (on these bushings) was created by Adma with NASA resources.

NASA developed a solid lubricant coating, PS300, which is deposited by thermal spraying to protect foil air bearings. PS300 lowers friction, reduces emissions, and has been used by NASA in advanced aeropropulsion engines, refrigeration compressors, turbochargers, and hybrid electrical turbogenerators. ADMA Products has found widespread industrial applications for the material.[3]

Improved mine safety

An ultrasonic bolt elongation monitor developed by a NASA scientist for testing tension and high-pressure loads on bolts and fasteners has continued to evolve over the past three decades. Today, the same scientist and Luna Innovations are using a digital adaptation of this same device for destructive evaluation of railroad ties, groundwater analysis, radiation, and as a medical testing device to assess levels of internal swelling and pressure for patients suffering from intracranial pressure and compartment syndrome, a painful condition that results when pressure within muscles builds to dangerous levels.[12][3]

Food safety

Faced with the problem of how and what to feed an astronaut in a sealed capsule under weightless conditions while planning for human space flight, NASA enlisted the aid of The Pillsbury Company to address two principal concerns: eliminating crumbs of food that might contaminate the spacecraft’s atmosphere and sensitive instruments, and assuring absolute absence of disease-producing bacteria and toxins. Pillsbury developed the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) concept to address NASA’s second concern. HACCP is designed to prevent food safety problems rather than to catch them after they have occurred. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has applied HACCP guidelines for the handling of seafood, juice, and dairy products.[4]

History of the Spinoff publication

Spinoff is a NASA publication featuring technology made available to the public. Since 1976, NASA has featured an average of 50 technologies each year in the annual publication, and Spinoff maintains a searchable database of these technologies. When products first spun off from space research, NASA presented a black and white report in 1973, titled the "Technology Utilization Program Report". Because of interest in the reports, NASA decided to create the annual publications in color. Spinoff was first published in 1976,[9] and since then, NASA has distributed free copies to universities, the media, inventors, and the general public. Spinoff describes how NASA works with various industries and small businesses to bring new technology to the public. As of 2008, there were over 1600 Spinoff products in the database, dating back to 1976.

See also


  1. ^ "Spinoff Frequently Asked Questions: Are Tang, Teflon, and Velcro NASA spinoffs?". NASA.gov. 2007-07-10. Retrieved 2009-02-16.
  2. ^ "NASA @ Home and City". NASA.gov. 2008. Retrieved 2009-02-16.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g NASA (2005). Spinoff. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. ISBN 0-16-075266-3.
  4. ^ a b c NASA (1991). Spinoff. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  5. ^ a b NASA (2002). Spinoff. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. ISBN 0-16-077275-3.
  6. ^ a b NASA (2004). Spinoff. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  7. ^ a b NASA (2007). Spinoff. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. ISBN 978-0-16-079740-8.
  8. ^ NASA (1985). Spinoff. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  9. ^ a b c d NASA (1976). Spinoff. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  10. ^ NASA (2001). Spinoff. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  11. ^ a b NASA (2006). Spinoff. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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