Bringing Nasa Down To Earth
What do a NASA spacecraft that studied the sun and a fluid that protects vinyl records have in common?
More than you might think.
During the construction of OSO 1, an orbiting solar observatory that NASA launched in 1962, the engineers at the Ball Corporation of Boulder, Colorado, faced numerous challenges, including creating lubricants that would not boil away or freeze in space. They solved that problem by developing a molybdenum sulfide–based substance they dubbed VacKote. A decade later, Ball marketed a VacKote derivative called Sound Guard, a liquid that audiophiles could spray on their records to save them from wear.
Prior to World War II, Ball had been known primarily for manufacturing glass jars for home canning. Afterward, the company embraced high technology. “We got into the space field,” said company president John Fisher, “because it was the beginning of the biggest scientific effort in our nation’s history. We knew it could be profitable for us, and that we could get commercial ‘fallout’ from it.”
Finding commercial applications for technology that NASA developed was built into its mission from inception: section 203 of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, the legislation that created the agency in 1958, direct ed NASA to find ways to transfer its technology to the private sector. Four years later NASA created the Industrial Applications Program, which monitors centers around the country dedicated to facilitating the transfer of new inventions. Periodically Congress stepped in to pass more legislation to fine-tune the process. In 1976 NASA began publishing the monthly Tech Briefs, a journal outlining new licensing possibilities available to industry, and Spinoff, an annual magazine showcasing examples of NASA technology that had made the transition to the commercial world.
“NASA has the most patents of any federal agency,” says Spinoff editor Daniel P. Lockney. Although the exact figure is hard to pin down, it’s something in excess of 6,500. Often NASA will license the use of its patented technology. Other times a company working on a NASA contract will develop a technology and spin it off for its own purposes. A company can also tap into NASA’s technical expertise when it needs help with a specific product—something a company called Diatek did in the 1970s when it consulted NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory about a medical thermometer it was developing that measured infrared radiation in a patient’s ear. For years NASA also offered industry access to government-created software through its Computer Software Management and Information Center (COSMIC) at the University of Georgia at Athens.
While technology transfer remains less glamorous than landing men on the Moon or taking pictures on Mars, it has had an undeniably significant impact on Earth. Metal fibers important in building rockets found other roles in film and oil-rig filters. Machinery devised to inspect spacecraft welds with ultrasound found equally effective use in evaluating the integrity of railroad tracks. Tough metals designed for spacecraft in the unforgiving conditions of outer space found application in farmers’ plows. To sort mail by zip codes, the U.S. Postal Service adapted software that NASA engineers wrote to aid the process of inspecting spacecraft. Microcircuitry designed for the tight confines of space probes proved readily adaptable for use in small medical devices placed within the human body. NASA spinoffs have cropped up everywhere, from tiny products that affect only specialized industries to firefighting equipment and medical technologies.
As the following case histories demonstrate, space technology lurks in the most surprising of places: in sports stadiums and audio speakers, or even resting on the bridge of your nose.
From Spacesuits to Stadium Roofs
DuPont may have invented Teflon (see sidebar), but NASA put the material to good use in Apollo space suits. Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corporation developed a thin yarn made out of fiberglass, which technicians wove into a fabric and then coated with DuPont’s Teflon. The resulting light but tough material served as the outer layer of the space suits donned by Moon-walking astronauts.
Owens-Corning also began production of a thicker yarn, which Chemical Fabrics, a company in Bennington, Vermont, turned into an even sturdier fabric. When coated with Teflon, the cloth proved light, strong, fireproof, and able to withstand exposure to the elements. It also did not stretch, and dirt slid right off.
In the 1970s, Birdair, Inc. used the Teflon fiberglass to build the roof of the student center at the University of La Verne in California, which looked as though it had a large white circus tent at each corner. Large center poles supported each of the “tents,” while a series of cables, arranged like a giant spider web beneath the fabric, kept the roof firmly in place.
Birdair built a much larger roof for the Detroit Lions’ Silverdome, which opened in 1975 and seated 80,000 football fans. The 200-ton roof—only one-30th the weight of a comparable metal roof—required 10 acres of fabric and was anchored in place by steel cables secured in concrete. Forced air partially supported the Silverdome: 29 fans inflated the domed roof, while it took only three to maintain the air pressure.
Since then Birdair has created about 850 fabric roofs, among them 75 sports stadiums and London’s colossal Millennium Dome. Other companies now build with the fabric as well. “In our industry of fabric structures there is no material out there that has the proven track record for durability, for longevity, for low maintenance,” says Bill Barden, Birdair’s director for architectural development. Forty years later, NASA still uses Teflon-covered fiberglass for a number of purposes, including the liner for the space shuttle’s cargo bay.
How do you make liquid fuel flow into an engine under the zero gravity of space? Early in the space age, engineers at NASA’s Lewis Research Center found that if tiny pieces of metal were suspended in the fuel, then magnets could draw the fluid into a spacecraft’s combustion chambers. Brownian motion—the random collisions on a molecular level—and other fundamental forces kept the infinitesimally small particles from settling out of the solution, while a coating of surfactants prevented clumping. And so ferrofluids were born.
While NASA opted instead for solid fuel in its spacecrafts, scientists Ronald Moskowitz and Ronald Rosenweig of Avco Space Systems licensed the technology and founded Ferrofluidics Corporation (now Ferrotec). They found an application for ferrofluids in magnetically controlled seals, particularly in industrial processes requiring a vacuum. A typical ferrofluid seal features a magnetic circuit completed by the magnetically permeable rotating shaft. As the shaft rotates, the ferrofluid aligns along the lines of magnetic flux and forms a tight seal, like a liquid o-ring. “We are the seal of choice in the semiconductor industry,” says Barry Moskowitz, Roland Moskowitz’s son and the global manager of Ferrotec’s fluids division.
Ferrofluids also can reduce sound distortion in audio speakers. In some speakers, the coil, which creates sound when a magnetic field makes it vibrate, is surrounded by a gap of air. When ferrofluid replaces the air, the speaker’s magnetic field holds the solution in place, enabling it to serve as an efficient thermoconductor and dampen the coil’s motion.
Perhaps it’s only one small step from audio speakers to artwork. Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama creates dynamic, kinetic pieces she calls ferrofluid sculptures. For Morpho Towers (2006), Kodama placed a spiral metal tower in a tray filled with an oil-based ferrofluid. Electrical current running through the tower makes the magnetized liquid dance up and down its length, forming hypnotic displays of spikes, droplets, and random patterns. “We do work with a lot of artists and museums and institutes,” says Moskowitz. “I like to encourage that because I think it is a fascinating technology and the more that people see it, the better.”
Moskowitz says his company is also looking into using ferrofluids for metals recycling, which he says has “explosive potential . . . in sensors, solenoids, and transformers. I believe that the biggest days of ferrofluid technology and the expansion of that technology are yet to come.”
From Satellites to Blankets
Hikers and runners use crinkly, metallic “space blankets” because the reflective material traps body heat and keeps them warm. While NASA did not invent the metallizing process that led to the technology behind making space blankets, it did help transform metallizing from a narrowly applied process primarily used in tinsel manufacturing and the toy industry to many larger applications capitalizing on the material’s remarkable ability to reflect. “The application for reflective insulation was definitely, in my view, a NASA development,” says David Deigan, a metallizing veteran who founded his own company, AFMInc, which produces everything from space blankets called Heatsheets to Thermoflect insulation.
NASA’s connection with metallized materials began with Echo 1, a satellite NASA launched in 1960. Little more than a huge balloon about as tall as a 10-story building, Echo served a passive transmitter in space: radio signal from the ground bounced off the shiny sphere and returned to receiving stations on the ground. The key to Echo’s success was its thin skin, made from polyester (also known by the DuPont trade name mylar) coated with a 0.0005-inch-thick layer of aluminum, which created a balloon so small that it could be folded to fit into a canister the size of a beach ball.
Such metallized substances also deflect heat radiation, a property that made NASA prize them as spacecraft insulation. When the orbiting Skylab lost its heat shield during launch, the National Metallizing company provided materials for a reflective parasol that astronauts jury-rigged atop the spacecraft. The company also manufactured gold-covered foil as insulation for the Apollo lunar module. “The reason gold was used is that it virtually didn’t react with anything,” says Deigan, who worked at National Metallizing before founding AFMInc. “While it was wildly expensive, it was also not corrosive. It would withstand space a long time.” It also reflected 98 to 99 percent of the heat radiation that struck it.
For terrestrial uses, companies produced all kinds of metallized products—reflective window curtains, insulation, candy wrappers, wall coverings, suntanning blankets, and food packaging among them. In London, a company began marketing a metallized outer garment it called a “Spacecoat.” Metallized Products developed a product for NASA called TXG laminate, which found use in the reflective canopy of the rafts astronauts climbed into after splashdown. Metallized Products also manufactures a metallized “superinsulation” used in particle accelerators and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.
Following a devastating earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, a Seattle hiker named Richard Berger contacted Deigan at AMInc, and spurred an effort to get 150,000 emergency Heatsheets sent to Pakistan to protect earthquake victims from exposure.
The Eyes Have It
In 1972 sunglass manufacturer Foster Grant obtained a license from the Ames Research Center for a scratch-resistant coating NASA had used to protect equipment in space. Foster Grant used the coating on a new lens it called SPACE TECH. Several years later Bausch & Lomb, Inc. began marketing its own scratch-resistant lenses, using a technique developed at NASA’s Lewis Research Center for coating surfaces with a thin film of carbon ions. Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. licensed this “dual ion beam bonding process” from Lewis and coated sunglass lenses with a diamond-like layer of carbon.
NASA and sunglasses crossed paths a third time thanks to JPL systems engineer James B. Stephens, who was wrestling with creating a protective welding curtain that would block out the welding torch’s harmful light, but still leave the welder visible to observers. Stephens and JPL physicist Charles G. Miller developed a combination of dyes and zinc oxide particles that filtered out the harmful wavelengths. Later, Stephens found a way to apply the dye system to sunglass lenses that would protect against light in the blue and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum.
One of Stephen’s collaborators, NASA scientist Laurie Johansen and her husband, NASA engineer Paul Diffendaffer, patented the technology for an “ultraviolet radiation and blue light blocking polarizing lens,” forming the basis for SunTiger, Inc. sunglasses company (later changed to Eagle Eyes Optics). SunTiger spun off its sunglasses formula to make protective glasses for industrial and medical uses as well.
“Instead of inventing something and hoping to find a market for it, Stephens went the other way around,” Johansen says. “What made it possible was that he had a huge bunch of people at JPL that he knew, and expertise in all kinds of areas. So whenever he needed expertise in a certain area, all he had to do was pick up the phone and call.”
FROM Planets to Plaque
In 1966 Twentieth Century-Fox released Fantastic Voyage in which a spacecraft-like vessel and its crew were miniaturized and injected into a patient’s bloodstream to eliminate a dangerous blood clot.
While no one has managed that yet, physicians can use technology spun off from the space program to peer into a patient’s arteries. The AterioVision software, marketed by Medical Technologies International, Inc. uses ultrasound readings enhanced by JPL digital imaging software to determine a patient’s risk for arteriosclerosis, a buildup of plaque inside arteries that increases the chances of heart-attack.
The technology behind AterioVision emerged at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1966, when engineers introduced Video Image Communication and Retrieval (VICAR), a collection of software packages designed to help NASA scientists process and analyze images captured by planetary probes.
One of the VICAR developers, Robert Selzer, who also headed JPL’s Biomedical Image Processing Laboratory, realized the potential that VICAR software held out for medical imaging. Working with doctors at the University of Southern California, particularly Dr. Howard N. Hodis, Selzer tried analyzing ultrasound data with the VICAR software. Encouraged by the results, they developed a system that measured the plaque accumulation, called carotid intima-media thickness (CIMT), in the carotid artery in the neck.
The team was experimenting with the technology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine when businessman and entrepreneur Gary F. Thompson entered the picture. Thompson could personally vouch for the need for such a system. His family had a history of heart disease; in fact, for generations no male in his family had lived beyond 50. Thompson, a non-smoker, fitness buff, and marathon runner, was about to turn 50, and he planned to run in three marathons to commemorate the milestone. First he underwent a battery of medical tests and received a clean bill of health. Then, 15 miles into the first marathon, Thompson felt back pain. Five miles later he had to stop running. He had suffered a severe heart attack, one that would have killed a less healthy individual. None of his medical tests had detected the plaque that had built up in his arteries.
After his heart attack, Thompson heard about the new protocol being tested at USC. Without telling the technicians about his history, he had himself checked out with it. “The tech, during the exam, was visibly shaken,” says Kelly Nardoni, MTI’s senior vice president, and she told Thompson, “You have the thickest CIMT that I’ve ever seen from anyone still living.” Thompson was so impressed with the technology he founded Medical Technologies International Inc. and now serves as its chairman and CEO. The ArterioVision technology has since received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration and is now being used by clinicians around the country.