R & D SPINOFFS

March 12, 2016


Last week I posted an article on WordPress entitled “Global Funding”.  The post was a prognostication relative to total global funding in 2016 through 2020 for research and development in all disciplines.  I certainly hope there are no arguments as to benefits of R & D.  R & D is the backbone of technology.  The manner in which science pushes the technological envelope is research and development.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has provided a great number of spinoffs that greatly affect everyday lives remove drudgery from activities that otherwise would consume a great deal of time and just plain sweat.  The magazine “NASA Tech Briefs”, March 2016, presented forty such spinoffs demonstrating the great benefits of NASA programs over the years.  I’m not going to resent all forty but let’s take a look at a few to get a flavor of how NASA R & D has influenced consumers the world over.  Here we go.

  • DIGITAL IMAGE SENSORS—The CMOS active pixel sensor in most digital image-capturing devices was invented when NASA needed to miniaturize cameras for interplanety missions.  It is also widely used in medical imaging and dental X-ray devices.
  • Aeronautical Winglets—Key aerodynamic advances made by NASA researchers led to the up-turned tips of wings known as “winglets.”  Winglets are used by nearly all modern aircraft and have saved literally billions of dollars in fuel costs.
  • Precision GPS—Beginning in the early 1990s, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) developed software capable of correcting for GPS errors.  NASA monitors the integrity of global GPS data in real time for the U.S. Air Force, which administers the positioning service world-wide.
  • Memory Foam—Memory foam was invented by NASA-funded researchers looking for ways to keep test pilots cushioned during flights.  Today, memory foam makes for more comfortable beds, couches, and chairs, as well as better shoes, movie theater seats, and even football helmets.
  • Truck Aerodynamics—Nearly all trucks on the road have been shaped by NASA.  Agency research in aerodynamic design led to the curves and contours that help modern big rigs cut through the air with less drag. Perhaps, as much as 6,800 gallons of diesel per year per truck has been saved.
  • Invisible Braces for Teeth—A company working with NASA invented the translucent ceramic that became the critical component for the first “invisible” dental braces, which went on to become one of the best-selling orthodontic products of all time.
  • Tensile Fabric for Architecture—A material originally developed for spacesuits can be seen all over the world in stadiums, arenas, airports, pavilions, malls, and museums. BirdAir Inc. developed the fabric from fiberglass and Teflon composite that once protected Apollo astronauhts as they roamed the lunar surface.  Today, that same fabric shades and protects people in public places.
  • Supercritical Wing—NASA engineers at Langley Research Center improved wing designs resulting in remarkable performance of an aircraft approaching the speed of sound.
  • Phase-change Materials—Research on next-generation spacesuits included the development of phase-change materials, which can absorb, hold, and release heat to keep people comfortable.  This technology is now found in blankets, bed sheets, dress shirts, T-shirts, undergarments, and other products.
  • Cardiac Pump—Hundreds of people in need of a heart transplant have been kept alive thanks to a cardiac pump designed with the help of NASA expertise in simulating fluid-flow through rocket engines.  This technology served as a “bridge” to the transplant methodology.
  • Flexible Aeorgel—Aeorgel is a porous material in which the liquid component of the gel has been carefully dried out and replaced by gas, leaving a solid almost entirely of air.  It long held the record as the world’s lightest solid, and is one of the most effective insulator in existence.
  • Digital Fly-By-Wire—For the first seventy (70) years of human flight, pilots used controls that connected directly to aircraft components through cables and pushrods. A partnership between NASA and Draper Laboratory in the 1970 resulted in the first plane flown digitally, where a computer collected all of the input from the pilot’s controls and used that information to command aerodynamic surfaces.
  • Cochlear Implants—One of the pioneers in early cochlear implant technology was Adam Kissiah, an engineer at Kennedy Space Center.  Mr. Kissiah was hearing-impaired and used NASA technology to greatly improve hearing devices by developing implants that worked by electric impulses rather than sound amplification.
  • Radiant Barrier—To keep people and spacecraft safe from harmful radiation, NASA developed a method for depositing a thin metal coating on a material to make it highly reflective. On Earth, it has become known as radiant barrier technology.
  • Gigapan Photography—Since 2004, new generations of Mars rovers have been stunning the world with high-resolution imagery.  Though equipped with only one megapixel cameras, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have a robotic platform and software that allows them to combine dozens of shots into a single photograph.
  • Anti-icing Technology—NASA has spent many years solving problems related to ice accumulation in flight surfaces.  These breakthroughs have been applied to commercial aircraft flight.
  • Emergency Blanket—So-called space blankets, also known as emergency blankets, were first developed by NASA in 1964.  The highly reflective insulators are often included in emergency kits, and are used by long-distance runners and fire-team personnel.
  • Firefighter Protection—NASA helped develop a line of polymer textiles for use in spacesuits and vehicles.  Dubbed, PBI, the heat and flame-resistant fiber is now used in numerous firefighting, military, motor sports, and other applications.

These are just a few of the many NASA spinoffs that have solved down-to-earth problems for people over the world.  Let’s continue funding NASA to ensure future wonderful and usable technology.

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