The Benefits of Space Exploration: Spin-Offs

Everyday life as we know it would not be the same without spin-offs. Perhaps the greatest and most noteworthy advancements have been in the field of medicine. Pacemakers and artificial hearts are just a few of the many advancements giving a renewed chance at life for patients.

Spin-offs are products which have undergone a technology transfer process from research to public use. These uses may be direct or indirect.

Spin-offs are recognized as important products and a concerted effort is being put forth on behalf of NASA and other agencies and corporations to introduce spin-offs into both private industry and commercial use.

As space technology progressed after World War II, a curious development occurred. From the research that produced the rocket motors, liquid propellants, space suits, and other necessities of space flight emerged hundreds of by-products that no one had anticipated. These were unexpected applications in medicine, industry, materials, equipment, and services that had been created for use in space. Such by-products are called spin-offs.

I believe that the most important spin-offs are the ones made in the field of medicine.

The best-known examples of spin-offs are found in hospitals. They are adaptations from other areas of space technology. Typical of spin-off implements is a sight switch that permits some disabled people to operate devices they could not otherwise use. They do this by using their eye movements to interrupt a light beam. The switch was developed to give astronauts a means of controlling their spacecraft while their arms and legs were rendered useless by high acceleration.

Another device, which was developed to enable astronauts to steer spacecraft by voice command, can be used to help the retarded learn to speak, the deaf to speak more clearly, and stutterers to improve their speech. The device permits users to compare the oscilloscope trace of their voices with a trace of the desired sound.

Micro-miniature electronic components required because spacecraft devices must be small and light and use little power, yet be very rugged and durable over a relatively long period of time have made many instruments available to doctors and their patients. There are now hearing aids (not much larger than aspirin tablets) that are worn entirely within the ear. A television camera the size of a cigarette package is mounted on the surgeon’s head to give students a close-up view of an operation. Other small cameras, equipped with flexible light-transmitting devices, take pictures inside such body organs as the stomach.

Biotelemetry, which was developed to monitor the temperature, brain-wave activity, breathing rate, and heartbeat of astronauts, offers a new means of monitoring hospital patients. Biosensors attached to the body send data by wire or radio. This information may be displayed on oscilloscopes for doctors to analyze. It can also be fed into a computer that “watches” the patient and sounds an alarm if the results indicate that he requires medical assistance.

Not all spin-off of value in medicine involves electronics. Thus, a special stretcher developed to immobilize and remove injured workmen from the huge propellant tanks of the Saturn V rocket is now widely employed to remove injured workers from mines, offshore oil-drilling rigs, and boats. The rigid aluminium device permits someone to be moved through an opening 18 inches in diameter.

The search for a better insulating material for rocket-propellant tanks produced a plastic polymer gel with the density of human fat at body temperature. Used as padding for bedridden patients, it prevents bedsores. Aerospace scientists in England developed a special bed which enables burn patients literally to float on a cushion of air. The burns heal more quickly because they do not rub against bedclothes.

The scientists who developed the Surveyor lunar probe found that they could make the pictures that the surveyor was designed to photograph clearer by using a specially-designed computer to control printing. This technique, when applied to X-ray pictures taken in various fields of medicine, reveals anatomical details that were previously invisible with conventional X-ray technology.

There also exist benefits in other fields, many items developed in space research are now being used in factories, offices, and homes. Some may seem trivial; others have been of great benefit.

Fiberglass materials for rocket-fuel tanks are now employed to make lightweight, high-strength storage tanks, railway tank cars, and highway tankers. A magnetic hammer that originally served to eliminate small imperfections from metal surfaces of the Saturn V rocket is being adapted for use in the automotive and shipbuilding industries.

Hundreds of other items could be mentioned. There are, for example, an aluminized plastic blanket that can be folded small enough to be carried in a pocket; a cooler-smoking tobacco pipe, lined with a material developed for nuclear rocket engines; an ultrasonic testing device that can reveal hidden earthquake damage in masonry structures; and an improved caulking compound for tiles, derived from sealants used in spacecraft.

The experience gained from developing NASA spacesuits was applied in the process of designing clothing for use in other professions. Fire fighters now have lighter, less bulky breathing apparatuses and special “fire blocking” materials that are more resistant to cracking and burning. Spacers used for ventilation and cushioning in moon boots were adapted for use in athletic shoes that are designed to reduce fatigue and injury.

Computer Technology Spin-offs:

VIRTUAL REALITY – NASA-developed research allows a user, with assistance from advanced technology devices, to figuratively project oneself into a computer-generated environment, matching the user’s head motion, and, when coupled with a stereo viewing device and appropriate software, creates a telepresence experience.

Night Vision Camera

Low light-level viewing devices are typically used by the military services for surveillance and intelligence-gathering activities at night or in conditions of poor visibility; they are additionally used in such applications as medical imaging and spectroscopy. Conventional low light TV imaging systems generally employ image intensifiers together with Charged-Coupled Devices (CCDs), cameras that capture scenes electronically (without film) and produce a digital image with relatively high resolution.

.Other spin-offs in this area include: Advanced keyboards, Customer Service Software, Database Management System, Laser Surveying, Aircraft controls, Lightweight Compact Disc, Expert System Software, Microcomputers, and Design Graphics.

Consumer/Home/Recreation Spin-offs:

ENRICHED BABY FOOD – A microalgae-based, vegetable-like oil called Formulaid developed from NASA-sponsored research on long duration space travel, contains two essential fatty acids found in human milk but not in most baby formulas, believed to be important for infants’ mental and visual development.

WATER PURIFICATION SYSTEM – NASA-developed municipal-size water treatment system for developing nations, called the Regenerable Biocide Delivery Unit, uses iodine rather than chlorine to kill bacteria.

SCRATCH-RESISTANT LENSES – A modified version of a dual ion beam bonding process developed by NASA involves coating the lenses with a film of diamond-like carbon that not only provides scratch resistance, but also decreases surface friction, reducing water spots

Scratch-resistant sunglasses feature a technological advance that makes them 10 times more scratch-resistant than conventional glass lenses.

POOL PURIFICATION – Space technology designed to sterilize water on long-duration spacecraft applied to swimming pool purification led to a system that uses two silver-copper alloy electrodes that generate silver and copper ions when an electric current passes through them to kill bacteria and algae without chemicals.

GOLF BALL AERODYNAMICS – A recently designed golf ball, which has 500 dimples arranged in a pattern of 60 spherical triangles, employs NASA aerodynamics technology to create a more symmetrical ball surface, sustaining initial velocity longer and producing a more stable ball flight for better accuracy and distance.

PORTABLE COOLERS/WARMERS – Based on a NASA-inspired space cooling system employing thermoelectric technology, the portable cooler/warmer plugs into the cigarette lighters of autos, recreational vehicles, boats, or motel outlets. Utilizes one or two miniaturized modules delivering the cooling power of a 10-pound block of ice and the heating power of up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

SPORTS TRAINING – Space-developed cardio-muscular conditioner helps athletes increase muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness through kinetic exercise.

ATHLETIC SHOES – Moon Boot material encapsulated in running shoe midsoles improve shock absorption and provides superior stability and motion control.


 Other spin-offs in this area include: Dustbuster, shock-absorbing helmets, home security systems, smoke detectors, flat panel televisions, high-density batteries, trash compactors, food packaging and freeze-dried technology, cool sportswear, sports bras, hair styling appliances, fogless ski goggles, self-adjusting sunglasses, composite golf clubs, hang gliders, art preservation, and quartz crystal timing equipment.

Environmental and Resource Management Spin-offs:

SOLAR ENERGY – NASA-pioneered photovoltaic power system for spacecraft applications was applied to programs to expand terrestrial applications as a viable alternative energy source in areas where no conventional power source exists.

WEATHER FORECASTING AID – Space Shuttle environmental control technology led to the development of the Barorator which continuously measures the atmospheric pressure and calculates the instantaneous rate of change.

FOREST MANAGEMENT – A NASA-initiated satellite scanning system monitors and maps forestation by detecting radiation reflected and emitted from trees.

WIND MONITOR – Development of Jimsphere wind measurement balloon for space launches allows for making high resolution measurements of the wind profile for meteorological studies and predictions.

PLANT RESEARCH – NASA research on future moon and Mars bases is investigating using plants for food, oxygen, and water to reduce the need for outside supplies. This research utilizes Hydroponics (liquid nutrient solutions) instead of soil to support plant growth and finds applications for vegetable production on Earth.

FIRE RESISTANT MATERIAL – Materials include chemically-treated fabric for sheets, uniforms for hazardous material handlers, crew’s clothing, furniture, interior walls of submersibles and auto racer and refueler suits.

RADIATION INSULATION – Aluminized polymer film is highly effective radiation barrier for both manned and unmanned spacecraft. Variations of this space-devised material are also used as an energy conservation technique for homes and offices. The materials are placed between wall studs and exterior facing before siding or between roof support and roof sheathing. The radiant barrier blocks 95% of radiant energy. Successful retrofit installations include schools and shrink wrap ovens.

Other spin-offs in this area include: Whale identification method, environmental analysis, noise abatement, pollution measuring devices, pollution control devices, smokestack monitor, radioactive leak detector, earthquake prediction system, sewage treatment, energy saving air conditioning, and air purification.

Medical Spin-offs:

Cardiac Monitor

The basic method of assessing heart function is thermodilution, a procedure that involves insertion of a catheter into the pulmonary artery and is demanding in terms of cost, equipment and skilled personnel time. For monitoring astronauts in flight, NASA needed a system that was non-invasive and considerably less complex.

VOICE-CONTROLLED WHEELCHAIR – NASA teleoperator and robot technology used to develop chair and manipulator that respond to 35 one-word voice commands utilizing a minicomputer to help patient perform daily tasks, like picking up packages, opening doors, and turning on appliances.

Other spin-offs in this area include: Arteriosclerosis detection, ultrasound scanners, automatic insulin pump, portable x-ray device, invisible braces, dental arch wire, palate surgery technology, clean room apparel, implantable heart aid, MRI, bone analyzer, and cataract surgery tools.

Industrial Spin-offs:

MICROLASERS – Based on a concept for optical communications over interplanetary distances, microlasers were developed for the commercial market to transmit communication signals and to drill, cut, or melt materials.

Other spin-offs in this area include: Gasoline vapor recovery, self-locking fasteners, machine tool software, laser wire stripper, lubricant coating process, wireless communications, engine coatings, and engine design.

Public Safety Spin-offs:

RADIATION HAZARD DETECTOR – NASA technology has made commercially available new, inexpensive, conveniently carried device for protection of people exposed to potentially dangerous levels of microwave radiation. Weighing only 4 ounces and about the size of a cigarette pack, it can be carried in a shirt pocket or clipped to a belt. Unit sounds an audible alarm when microwave radiation reaches a preset level.

EMERGENCY RESPONSE ROBOT – Remotely-operated robot reduces human injury levels by performing hazardous tasks that would otherwise be handled by humans.

PERSONAL ALARM SYSTEM – Pen-sized ultrasonic transmitter used by prison guards, teachers, the elderly, and disabled to call for help is based on space telemetry technology. Pen transmits a silent signal to receiver that will display the exact location of the emergency.

EMERGENCY RESCUE CUTTERS – Lightweight cutters for freeing accident victims from wreckage developed using NASA pyrotechnic technology.

FIREMAN’S AIR TANKS – Lighter-weight firefighter’s air tanks have been developed. New back-pack system weighs only 20 lbs. for 30 minute air supply, 13 lbs. less than conventional firefighting tanks. They are pressurized at 4,500 psia (twice current tanks). A warning device tells the fireman when he or she is running out of air.

PERSONAL STORM WARNING SYSTEM – Lightning detector gives 30-minute warning to golfers, boaters, homeowners, business owners, and private pilots.

SELF-RIGHTING LIFE RAFT – Developed for the Apollo program, fully inflates in 12 seconds and protects lives during extremely adverse weather conditions with self-righting and gravity compensation features.

Other spin-offs in this area include: Storm warning services (Doppler radar), firefighters’ radios, lead poison detection, fire detector, flame detector, corrosion protection coating, protective clothing, and robotic hands.

Transportation Spin-offs:

STUDLESS WINTER TIRES – Viking Lander parachute shroud material is adapted and used to manufacture radial tires, increasing the tire material’s chainlike molecular structure to five times the strength of steel should increase tread life by 10,000 miles.

BETTER BRAKES – New, high-temperature composite space materials provide for better brake linings. Applications include trucks, industrial equipment and passenger cars.

WEIGHT SAVING TECHNOLOGY – NASA research on composite materials is used to achieve a 30-percent weight reduction in a twin-turbine helicopter, resulting in a substantial increase in aircraft performance.

IMPROVED AIRCRAFT ENGINE – Multiple NASA developed technological advancements resulted in a cleaner, quieter, more economical commercial aircraft engine known as the high bypass turbofan, featuring a 10-percent reduction in fuel consumption, lower noise levels, and emission reductions of oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and unburned hydrocarbons.

ADVANCED LUBRICANTS – An environmental-friendly lubricant designed to support the Space Shuttle Mobile Launcher Platform led to the development of three commercial lubricants for railroad track maintenance, for electric power company corrosion prevention, and as a hydraulic fluid with an oxidation life of 10,000 hours.

ENERGY STORAGE SYSTEM – The Flywheel Energy Storage system, derived from two NASA-sponsored energy storage studies, is a chemical-free, mechanical battery that harnesses the energy of a rapidly spinning wheel and stores it as electricity with 50 times the capacity of a lead-acid battery, very useful for electric vehicles.

NEW WING DESIGN FOR CORPORATE JETS – NASA-developed computer programs resulted in an advanced, lighter, more aerodynamically-efficient new wing for Gulfstream business aircraft.

AIDS TO SCHOOL BUS DESIGN – Manufacturer uses three separate NASA-developed technologies originally developed for aviation and space use in their design and testing of a new school bus chassis. These technologies are a structural analysis computer program infrared stress measurement system, and a ride quality meter system.

Other spin-offs in this area include: Safer bridges, emission testing, airline wheelchairs, electric car, auto design, methane-powered vehicles, windshear prediction, and aircraft design analysis.


(articles about NASA spin-offs)
– Compton’s Encyclopedia

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