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Nasa Spinoffs: Fact Or Myth?

Fall 2008 | Volume 23 |  Issue 3

While numerous NASA technologies have found applications outside the aerospace industry, many products long associated with NASA actually came to the space agency fully developed from the consumer and commercial worlds. Test your NASA spinoff literacy below.

MYTH Teflon. DuPont created polymerized tetrafluoroethylene by accident in 1938—20 years before the creation of NASA—when its chemists were studying chlorofluorocarbons for use as refrigerants. During World War II the nonstick substance found military applications, including use on the Manhattan Project, and DuPont registered the name in 1944. NASA used Teflon to coat fibers used in space suits.

FACT Temper Foam. In 1968, with an eye toward improving airplane safety, engineers from NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California invented a “slow springback foam” for use in seat cushions. The open-cell polyurethane and silicon foam, which absorbed impact and slowly regained its shape, found use in football helmet padding, medical cushioning, and many other applications, including the Tempur-Pedic mattress.

FACT Space-Age Lubricant. In 1994 NASA and Lockheed Martin Space Operations solicited Sun Coast Chemicals (now the X-1R Corporation) of Daytona Beach, Florida, to make a biodegradable, environmentally friendly lubricant for the tracks of the crawler that transports the space shuttle to the launch pad. X-1R Crawler Track Lube found use later on trains, automobiles, industrial machinery, and household applications, as well as for cleaning guns and lubricating fishing reels.

FACT The Dustbuster. In 1971 Apollo 15 astronauts obtained lunar core samples with a powerful, battery-operated drill produced by the Black & Decker Corporation. Using the computer program designed to develop the successful drill, as well as the project’s knowledge base, Black & Decker invented the Dustbuster, a small, handheld, cordless vacuum cleaner, which went on the market in 1979.

FACT Voltage Controller. In 1984, while working at NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, engineer Frank Nola patented an energy-saving device that would vary the voltage in an electric motor, depending on the load. The Power Efficiency Corporation licensed the technology from NASA the following year and quickly found applications in escalators and elevators, which need more or less power depending on the number of passengers.

FACT Optical rofilometer. Engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, built a camera system for taking three-dimensional images of the Martian surface from the Mars Viking spacecraft. In the early 1980s, after queries from a Miami pediatrician, the center modified the technology so that physicians could accurately scan casts taken from patients with cleft palates and then use the information to perform more effective corrective surgery.

MYTH The Space Pen. NASA didn’t invent the space pen; Paul Fisher did, and he brought it to the space agency. The pen’s pressurized, sealed canister forced thick thixotropic ink to the ball at the tip, regardless of the ambient pressure. NASA astronauts began using this kind of pen starting with Apollo 7 in 1968.

FACT Programmable Pacemaker. Pacesetter Systems, Inc. introduced a programmable pacemaker in 1979 that could be reset through wireless telemetry, eliminating invasive surgery. The technology was spun off from telemetry systems NASA developed to communicate with unmanned spacecraft.

FACT Fire-resistant Fabric. At the request of NASA and the Air Force Materials Lab, the Celanese Corporation developed PBI or polybenzimidazole, a highly flame-retardant material used to make flight suits following the fatal Apollo 1 fire in 1967. PBI became common in firefighters’ protective clothing after the company made it commercially available in 1983.

MYTH Velcro. In 1941 Swiss engineer George de Mestral invented the cloth with myriad tiny hooks and loops that bind together, after he examined the burdocks that had stuck to his clothing during a hike. Astronauts’ use of Velcro to fasten objects in zero-g conditions helped popularize it.

FACT Carbon Monoxide Detector. Under the direction of NASA’s Ames Research Center, a company later reorganized into Andros, Inc. designed a carbon monoxide detector that used nondispersive infrared spectroscopy to distinguish between the deadly gas and simple water vapor, a task that had frustrated early devices. Used in the Skylab cabin, the device was later developed commercially by Beckman Instruments, Inc.

FACT Heat-resistant Paint. Using technical information provided by NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, the Sperex Corporation of Gardena, California, developed a heat-resistant, inorganic paint for use on cars. NASA technology also helped Sperex create VHT TrackBite, a sticky, heat-resistant goo introduced in 1972 to seal race tracks and provide better traction for drivers.

FACT Heated Goggles. In 1977 the Sierracin Corporation adapted NASA-designed technology that kept faceplates and windows in high-altitude aircraft and Apollo spacesuits from fogging, using it for ski goggles. Sierracin and the Cavitron Corporation also adapted the same technology of conductive film heated by batteries to create a clear plastic cradle warmer for newborns.

FACT Earthquake ASSESSING Device. NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center contracted Wyle Laboratories to develop a system capable of measuring the impact on the Saturn V rockets of the violent vibrations caused during launch. Wyle later used the technology to study the effects of earthquake vibrations on equipment in nuclear reactors.

FACT Environmentally Safe Protective Coatings. Deteriorating concrete launch-pad structures prompted NASA scientists at the Kennedy Space Center in the mid-1990s to develop an electromigration technique that sent corrosion-inhibiting ions into rebar to prevent rust, corrosion, and separation from the surrounding concrete. NASA worked with Surtreat Holding LLC, which had developed TPS-II, an anticorrosive solution product, to develop a spray-on, environmentally safe coating that, in conjunction with the electromigration technology, significantly reduced repair and maintenance costs.

FACT Unsinkable Life Raft. During the Mercury and Gemini programs, NASA’s Johnson Space Center engineers searched for a raft that would not overturn in the rotor wash of helicopters as astronauts awaited recovery. Inventor Jim Givens of Tiverton, Rhode Island, had a solution: with a license from NASA, he developed the 75-pound Givens Buoy Life Raft, which has a canopied topside and an underwater hemispheric ballast chamber that helps keep the raft stable even in high winds and severe seas.

FACT Document-Deciphering Technology. In 1993, using digital infrared imaging developed for Earth-sensing satellites and space probes, NASA Johnson Propulsion Laboratory engineer Gregory Bearman was able to read nearly invisible text on fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, rare biblical documents created before 100 C.E. The National Archives also used technology developed for the Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo probe to scan historic documents in its collection.

MYTH Tang. General Foods Corporation, not NASA, developed the powdered juice mix in 1957, a year before Congress created NASA. Mercury astronaut John Glenn made it famous on his orbital flight in 1962—the only time Tang flew in space.

FACT Fireproofing Materials. The Avco Corporation worked with NASA to develop the ablative heat shield that protected the Apollo command modules during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. As the fireproof coating burned off, it dissipated the enormous heat energy, while the burned material remaining provided a protective barrier. In the 1970s Avco based its fireproof Chartek spray on this technology. International Paint LLC bought the Chartek brand in 1999 and developed Interchar, which is spayed on a building’s steel skeleton.

MYTH Bar Codes. While NASA did develop special bar code labels with American Bar Codes, Inc. for inventory control of space shuttle parts and other space system materials, the concept of bar coding was first patented in 1952.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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