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NASA Innovation Up Close and Personal

NASA’s post-Shuttle era has demonstrated that the agency continues to achieve amazing engineering feats – not the least of which is the Mars rover Curiosity, which has met the main goal of its 2-year mission in less than one year.

Nowhere was NASA innovation more evident than on my recent visit to Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA with the ten winners of the Speed2Design contest sponsored by Littelfuse, a Chicago-based circuit protection company. The prize: a behind-the-scenes tour of the center, including technical conversations with the engineers conducting breakthrough research on everything from simulation and analysis, to wind tunnel testing, to smartphone-based mini-satellites.

Although I’ve had the chance to visit many of the ten NASA field centers, including Ames, this visit was particularly memorable because of the cutting-edge technologies we were able to see up close. The ten winning engineers from across the country had the opportunity to visit multiple NASA labs on the Ames campus, courtesy of an in-depth, immersive tour led by David Morse, Chief of Ames’s Technology Partnerships Division.

As we visited the world’s largest wind tunnel, Bill Warmbrodt, chief of aeromechanics, described the 80 x 120-foot test section that is capable of velocities up to 100 knots. The fan drive system is composed of six variable-pitch fans, each 40 feet in diameter arranged in two rows of three. Each fan has 15 laminated wood blades and is powered by a 22,500 horsepower electric motor. The six fans rotate together at 180 rpm, drawing 106 megawatts of electricity at full power while moving more than 60 tons of air per second.

Our lab visits went from testing aircraft to – yes -- recycling astronaut urine. Michael Flynn, the engineer who heads the water technology development lab, described the need to completely eliminate the use of machinery in water recycling and purification systems to be used for long-duration space missions. Anything that could break or require maintenance simply won’t cut it. “If a life support system fails on a mission to Mars, you’re dead,” said Flynn. The solution: a membrane that mimics the human intestine, which, by the way, is a very-long-life system that filters water, never clogs, and re-generates.

When the day came to a close, I was pleased to hear one of the contest winners remark that they were amazed and impressed with the level of technology – for our use now and in the future on Earth and in space – NASA was developing. And that they were now aware – finally! -- that those technologies did not include Velcro® and Tang®.