NASA Spinoff

NASA Technology

NASA’s Stennis Space Center is located on 13,500 acres in Hancock County, Mississippi, surrounded by another 125,000 acres that act as a buffer for the deafening roar of rocket engines. It has witnessed the flame and smoke spout from the Saturn V rockets that would carry astronauts to the Moon for the first time, and the space shuttle main engines that would carry them into space more often than any other. More recently, it has hosted the testing of the J-2X engine belonging to the upper stage of NASA’s Space Launch System—technology that will power manned spaceflight during a new era of exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

In the course of time, circumstance, and coincidence, life sometimes completes some ironic and unlikely circles. During NASA’s early space exploration, a deceptively simple concept allowed scientists and engineers to manage thermal gain. They used highly reflective coated surfaces on ultra-light substrates to reflect infrared energy to effectively and reliably keep operating temperatures in the extremes of space at safe and manageable levels. That reflective insulation technology has kept thousands of satellites; all of NASA’s manned spacecraft, the Hubble Telescope, and most importantly, astronauts, safe and functional. NASA engineers used this technology to reflect infrared energy the way a child learns to redirect a sunbeam with a hand-held mirror.

altFast forward to 2009, when a young marine biologist working among the waterways of Florida’s East Coast, almost in the shadows of the iconic launch pad gantry sites at the Kennedy Space Center, employs that same NASA-developed principle that protects astronauts in space to manage the core temperature of one of nature’s most primitive and endangered creatures: the gentle manatee. The chain of events that brought marine biologist Artie Wong and his colleagues to the ideal solution started almost four decades ago, adjacent to these same waterways.

On May 14, 1973, Skylab launched into orbit and became a stunning example of what was possible for the Space Program. As the name implies, Skylab served as a space-based laboratory as well as an Earth-observing facility and a home base for three crews of astronauts. While Skylab proved that humans could live and work in outer space for extended periods of time, it also proved that great achievements often come with great challenges.

During launch, one of the protective shields on the outside of the spacecraft loosened, causing one solar panel to fall off, and preventing another from deploying. To plan for the spacecraft’s repair, Marshall Space Flight Center led a collaborative effort to start working around the clock.


Over the next 10 days, NASA engineers called upon National Metalizing, of Cranbury, New Jersey, to help create a reflective parasol-type sunshield to deploy on Skylab in place of the protective shield. National Metalizing was a manufacturer of reflective material utilizing a radiant barrier technology originally developed for NASA in the 1950s. In the public domain for the last 30 years, the radiant barrier technology consists of a thin plastic material coated with vaporized aluminum to either deflect or conserve infrared energy.

Eleven days after Skylab launched, astronauts launched from a second spacecraft, visited, and deployed a parasol sunshade made with the radiant barrier technology. As for the maker of the material that saved the spacecraft, National Metalizing’s manufacturing capacity was used for industrial coating and lamination applications after the company was sold in the mid-1980s.

In 1980, a former director of sales and marketing for the company, David Deigan, founded a new company recently renamed Advanced Flexible Materials (AFM) Inc. Headquartered in Petaluma, California, the company employs the same reflective insulation technology to produce ultra-light, compact travel and stadium blankets; colorfully printed wraps to keep hundreds of thousands of marathon finishers safe from hypothermia each year; a successful line of Heatsheets outdoor products sold in retail stores around the world under the Adventure Medical Kits label; as well as reflective insulating lining fabrics for mittens, vests, and more. In 1996, the radiant barrier technology was inducted into the Space Foundation’s prestigious Space Technology Hall of Fame.

Product Outcome

Deigan began providing thin plastic blankets made with the radiant barrier technology to keep thousands of runners warm at the 1980 New York City Marathon. Depending on when and where a marathon takes place, temperatures can be cool, and when participants stop running, hypothermia can become a problem. Today, the Heatsheets for running events and triathlons are produced exclusively in an environmentally friendly, recyclable polyethylene form, and reflect up to 97 percent of a person’s radiant heat, providing an envelope of warm air around the body to prevent hypothermia.

altFor nearly two decades, Alice and Bill Wong volunteered at the New York City Marathon, helping to distribute thousands of Heatsheets at the finish line. In 2009, Alice contacted Deigan to see if his company would be willing to donate some of its heat-reflective products for an unusual cause. Her son, Artie, a marine biologist with a non profit club called Save the Manatee Club was searching for a solution to a unique challenge. The club’s members work with the State of Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute to track and document the migration routes of manatees through Florida’s waterways, some of them not far from the Kennedy launch pad gantries on Florida’s East Coast.

altAs a part of the tag-and-release program, the docile sea cows are lifted from the water, checked to record their vital signs, tagged, and then returned to the water. Because these sea mammals are unable to withstand temperatures below 60 °F without slipping into hypothermia, Artie was searching for a more effective way to cover the manatees and conserve their vital body heat. The NASA-derived technology that gave his parents a way to help warm up runners for so many years seemed like the ideal solution. AFM recommended a more suitable solution, and donated a composite material incorporating a soft, non-woven fabric laminated with an encapsulated reflective insulation layer that could withstand the corrosive effects of salt water and could be safely reused for extended periods of time.

The finished version of the product has warmed more than 2 million Japanese consumers as an ultra-light, compact blanket; a futon cover; and a travel blanket. Over the past decade, AFM has exported to Japan through its trading partner, D. Nagata Co. Limited.

From helping to save Skylab to helping to save the manatees, the NASA-derived technology is sure to continue making a difference in the future, both on Earth and in space.

Heatsheets® is a registered trademark of Advanced Flexible Materials Inc.

Given the size of our planet and its wealth of resources, it is easy to forget that those resources are finite. As Earth’s human population continues to grow, the questions of how to effectively limit and recycle waste, avoid environmental contamination, and make the most of water and fuel reserves become all the more pressing.

Kennedy Space Center’s launch complexes have seen a lot. They have been the starting point for every manned NASA mission, from Mercury to Gemini, through Apollo, and are now seeing the space shuttle through its final launches. Kennedy, part of the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, is also home to over 1,500 different plant and animal species.
To help protect these living things, NASA works to keep the area as pristine as possible and that sometimes involves inventing new and innovative ways to clean up around the launch pads.


Imagine you are about to be dropped in the middle of a remote, inhospitable region—say the Kalahari Desert. What would you want to have with you on your journey back to civilization? Food and water, of course, but you can only carry so much. A truck would help, but what would you do when it runs out of gas? Any useful resources would have to be portable and— ideally—sustainable.

NASA not only peers up to gather information about space; it also peers down to gather information about Earth. As part of the Science Mission Directorate, NASA’s Earth Science Program aims to improve predictions about climate, weather, and natural hazards by understanding Earth’s response to natural and human-induced changes. One way scientists are tracking these changes is by monitoring the Earth’s soil moisture and ocean salinity.

If you are planning a day at your local park or even a weekend camping trip, you would simply pack all the food, drink, and supplies you need. Similarly, astronauts on short-term space missions can get away with packing the provisions they need to survive in space. But long-term space travel — a round-trip journey to Mars, for example — is no picnic. Depending on the mission, astronauts would need enough food to last for several months or years; a means to clean the air and water; and some efficient way of dealing with waste. Given cost and space limitations, packing supplies on this scale may not be feasible, meaning astronauts need a system that provides a steady source of sustenance while at the same time purifying and recycling waste. The best solution, then, for future deep space explorers: Develop a green thumb.


NASA Technology

“Who has more satellite data than NASA?” asks Patrick Hogan.

The question is a rhetorical one. After dozens of Earth-observing satellite launches and missions to other planets, NASA has accumulated an unmatched amount of planetary science information, including satellite imagery, terrain information, and climate data. To visualize this data and make it accessible, in 2002 Hogan and his colleagues at Ames Research Center started building a software program called World Wind.

NASA Technology

In complete darkness, a NASA observatory waits. When an eruption of boiling water billows from a nearby crack in the ground, the observatory’s sensors seek particles in the fluid, measure shifts in carbon isotopes, and analyze samples for biological signatures. NASA has landed the observatory in this remote location, far removed from air and sunlight, to find life unlike any that scientists have ever seen.

NASA Technology

All research and development has a story behind it, says Jacqueline Quinn, environmental engineer at Kennedy Space Center. For Quinn, one such story begins with the Saturn 1B launch stand at Kennedy and ends with a unique solution to a challenging environmental problem.


The U.S. Government does not endorse any commercial product, process, or activity identified on this web site.