NASA Spinoff

While President Obama’s news that NASA would encourage private companies to develop vehicles to take NASA into space may have come as a surprise to some, NASA has always encouraged private companies to invest in space. More than two decades ago, NASA established Commercial Space Centers across the United States to encourage industry to use space as a place to conduct research and to apply NASA technology to Earth applications. Although the centers are no longer funded by NASA, the advances enabled by that previous funding are still impacting us all today.

That space is a hazardous environment for humans is common knowledge. Even beyond the obvious lack of air and gravity, the extreme temperatures and exposure to radiation make the human exploration of space a complicated and risky endeavor. The conditions of space and the space suits required to conduct extravehicular activities add layers of difficulty and danger even to tasks that would be simple on Earth (tightening a bolt, for example). For these reasons, the ability to scout distant celestial bodies and perform maintenance and construction in space without direct human involvement offers significant appeal.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

In 1992, on a gravity assist flyby of Earth that would help propel it along its mission to Jupiter, NASA’s Galileo probe detected a line of light pulses emerging from Earth’s night-darkened hemisphere. Over the next few days, Galileo’s camera imaged similar signals—even though the probe was hurtling through space nearly 4 million miles from the planet.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

On a Friday night in March 2008, fans at a college basketball game at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome noticed the stadium’s scoreboard begin to sway. Outside, winds howled through the city. Unknown to those in the stadium, a tornado was ripping through downtown. The safety of the more than 18,000 people would depend in large part on the integrity of the stadium’s domed roof—built using a material originally developed to protect NASA astronauts.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

More than 10 billion miles away from Earth, a NASA spacecraft continues a journey that began in 1977. Having long since accomplished its original mission to Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 1 is the farthest human-made object from Earth, hurtling at more than 38,000 miles per hour toward the heliopause—the very edge of the solar system.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Consider the anatomy of a rainbow: From the inner arch, violet shifts to blue, then green, yellow, and red. Contained in the rainbow is the spectrum of light that our eyes take in and translate into images of the world around us. But the human eye only registers a minute percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum, which theoretically stretches into infinity beyond the wavelengths (between 0.38 and 0.76 micrometers) of visible light. Past violet, the wavelengths of ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays cramp closer and closer together. Going in the other direction, past red, stretch the expanding wavelengths of infrared, terahertz, microwaves, and radio waves. It is within these invisible ranges that many of the secrets of our universe remain.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

The iconic, orange external tank of the space shuttle launch system not only contains the fuel used by the shuttle’s main engines during liftoff but also comprises the shuttle’s “backbone,” supporting the space shuttle orbiter and solid rocket boosters. Given the tank’s structural importance and the extreme forces (7.8 million pounds of thrust load) and temperatures it encounters during launch, the welds used to construct the tank must be highly reliable.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

For all the challenges posed by the microgravity conditions of space, weight is actually one of the more significant problems NASA faces in the development of the next generation of U.S. space vehicles. For the Agency’s Constellation Program, engineers at NASA centers are designing and testing new vessels as safe, practical, and cost-effective means of space travel following the eventual retirement of the space shuttle. Program components like the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, intended to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and the Moon, must be designed to specific weight requirements to manage fuel consumption and match launch rocket capabilities; Orion’s gross liftoff weight target is about 63,789 pounds. Future space vehicles will require even greater attention to lightweight construction to help conserve fuel for long-range missions to Mars and beyond.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Rocket fuel needs to stay cool—super cool, in fact. The ability to store gas propellants like liquid hydrogen and oxygen at cryogenic temperatures (below -243 °F) is crucial for space missions in order to reduce their volumes and allow their storage in smaller (and therefore, less costly) tanks. The Agency has used these cryogenic fluids for vehicle propellants, reactants, and life support systems since 1962 with the Centaur upper stage rocket, which was powered with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Anyone who has ever experienced an unpleasant jolt from a doorknob after shuffling across the carpet on a dry morning knows that static electricity—also known as triboelectric charging—can be a nuisance. However, many computer enthusiasts are too familiar with how built-up triboelectricity can actually cause major problems when building a home computer; a simple spark from a finger can damage sensitive components and render them unusable. Under certain conditions, built-up triboelectricity discharges in these seemingly minor jolts, called electrostatic discharge (ESD), which can also cause major problems for NASA, as well as the computer industry. ESD can create sparks that ignite fuel in launch operations, and ESD can also damage delicate electronics and avionics, for operations on Earth as well as on space missions.

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