NASA Spinoff

NASA Technology

Have you ever felt nauseous reading a book in the back seat of a car? Or woken from a deep sleep feeling disoriented, unsure which way is up? Momentary mixups like these happen when the sensory systems that track the body’s orientation in space become confused. (In the case of the backseat bookworm, the conflict arises when the reader’s inner ear, part of the body’s vestibular system, senses the car’s motion while her eyes are fixed on the stationary pages of the book.) Conditions like motion sickness are common on Earth, but they also present a significant challenge to astronauts in space.

NASA Technology

As the International Space Station (ISS) travels 17,500 miles per hour, normal is having a constant sensation of free-falling. Normal is no rain, but an extreme amount of shine—with temperatures reaching 250 ˚F when facing the Sun. Thanks to a number of advanced control systems onboard the ISS, however, the interior of the station remains a cool, comfortable, normal environment where astronauts can live and work for extended periods of time.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

One of the forces that propels scientific and cultural advancement is exploration. The mission of NASA is to pioneer the future of space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research. Through this mission, NASA leads the Nation in pushing the boundaries of exploration and discovering new frontiers, and, as a secondary benefit, pushing scientific and cultural advancement.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Sport fishing is an uncertain pastime. Some days the fish are biting; others, not. But for captains of charter fishing boats and recreational fishermen making the most of a day off from work, returning without a catch is more than just a disappointment—it can have a financial impact as well, from wasted gas to frustrated clients taking their business elsewhere. Thanks to an evolving commercial partnership, oceanic data gathered by NASA satellites is now helping take the guesswork out of finding fishing hotspots.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

In order for NASA astronauts to explore the solar system, they will need to travel not just as pioneers but as settlers, learning to live off the land. Current mission needs have NASA scientists exploring ways to extract oxygen from the lunar soil and potable water from human wastes. One of the basic goals, however, will be for pioneering space travelers to learn to grow and manage their own crops. This requires the development of space-age greenhouses where astronaut farmers can experiment with harvesting large-scale food crops.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Beginning in 1968, NASA began researching garments to help astronauts stay cool. The Agency designed the Apollo space suits to use battery-powered pumps to circulate cool water through channels in the inner layers of the garments. This led to commercial cooling vests for patients with heat control disorders (first featured in Spinoff 1979) and for workers in heat stress occupations (featured in Spinoff 1982).

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Since designing the first space suits in the 1950s, NASA has been interested in developing materials to keep astronauts comfortable and cool. In order to protect an astronaut from the extreme temperatures in space, engineers at Johnson Space Center created liquid-cooled garments that run water in small channels throughout the suit in what is called an active control system. However, in the 1980s, NASA began to investigate passive control strategies—fabric that could control temperature without pumped liquids—building on work by the U.S. Air Force.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Johnson Space Center, NASA’s center for the design of systems for human space flight, began developing high-resolution visual displays in the 1990s for telepresence, which uses virtual reality technology to immerse an operator into the environment of a robot in another location. Telepresence is used by several industries when virtual immersion in an environment is a safer option, including remote training exercises and virtual prototyping, as well as remote monitoring of hazardous environments. Microdisplay panels, the tiny screens that comprise the visual displays for telepresence, are also used in some electronic viewfinders for digital video and still cameras.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

Recently, NASA’s Stardust mission used a block of aerogel to catch high-speed comet particles and specks of interstellar dust without damaging them, by slowing down the particles from their high velocity with minimal heating or other effects that would cause their physical alteration. This amazing accomplishment, bringing space particles back to Earth, was made possible by the equally amazing properties of aerogel.

altDue to its extremely light weight and often translucent appearance, aerogel is often called solid smoke. Barely denser than air, this smoky material weighs virtually nothing. In fact, it holds the world record for being the world’s lightest solid—one of 15 records granted it by Guinness World Records. It is truly an amazing substance: able to hold up under temperatures of 3,000 °F. Aerogels have unsurpassed thermal insulation values (providing three times more insulation than the best fiberglass), as well as astounding sound and shock absorption characteristics.

As a class, aerogels, composed of silicone dioxide and 99.8 percent air, have the highest thermal insulation value, the highest specific surface area, the lowest density, the lowest speed of sound, the lowest refractive index, and the lowest dielectric constant of all solid materials. They are also extremely fragile. Similar in chemical structure to glass, though 1,000 times less dense, they are often prone to breaking when handling—seemingly their only drawback—aside from their cost.

altInvented nearly 80 years ago, aerogels are typically hard-to-handle and costly to manufacture by traditional means. For these reasons, the commercial industry found it difficult to manufacture products incorporating the material. However, a small business partnered with NASA to develop a flexible aerogel concept and a revolutionary manufacturing method that cut production time and costs, while also solving the handling problems associated with aerogel-based insulation products.

These robust, flexible forms of aerogel can now be manufactured into blankets, thin sheets, beads, and molded parts.

James Fesmire, senior principal investigator at Kennedy Space Center’s Cryogenics Test Laboratory, and one of the key inventors of this new technology, says of the advancements, “This aerogel blanket insulation is not only the world’s best insulator, but, combined with its favorable environmental and mechanical characteristics, also opens the door to many new design possibilities for buildings, cars, electrical power, and many industrial process systems.”

altAspen Aerogels Inc., of Northborough, Massachusetts, an independent company spun off from Aspen Systems Inc., rose to the challenge of creating a robust, flexible form of aerogel by working with NASA through a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract with Kennedy. That contract led to further partnerships for the development of thermal insulation materials, manufacturing processes, and new test methods. This collaboration over many years was a pivotal part for the founding of NASA’s Cryogenics Test Laboratory.

Aspen responded to NASA’s need for a flexible, durable, easy-to-use aerogel system for cryogenic insulation for space shuttle launch applications. For NASA, the final product of this low thermal conductivity system was useful in applications such as launch vehicles, space shuttle upgrades, and life support equipment. The company has since used the same manufacturing process developed under the SBIR to expand its product offerings into the more commercial realms, making aerogel available for the first time as a material that can be handled and installed just like standard insulation. The development process culminated in an “R&D 100” award for Aspen Aerogels and Kennedy in 2003.

According to Fesmire, “This flexible aerogel insulation idea originated 16 years ago. The problem was to make the world’s best insulation material in an easy-to-use form at an affordable price. All these goals have now been achieved through many years of dedicated work.”

Product Outcome
Based on its work with NASA, Aspen has developed three different lines of aerogel products: Cryogel, Spaceloft, and Pyrogel. Its work has also infused back into the Space Program, as Kennedy is an important customer.

Cryogel is a flexible insulation, with or without integral vapor barrier, for sub-ambient temperature and cryogenic pipelines, vessels, and equipment. It comes as flexible aerogel blanket insulation engineered to deliver maximum thermal protection with minimal weight and thickness and zero water vapor permeability. Its unique properties—extremely low thermal conductivity, superior flexibility, compression resistance, hydrophobicity, and ease of use—make it an ideal thermal protection for cryogenic applications.

Spaceloft also comes in flexible blanket form and is easy to use. (It can be cut using conventional textile cutting tools, including scissors, electric scissors, and razor knives.) It is designed to meet the demanding requirements of industrial, commercial, and residential applications. Spaceloft is a proven, effective insulator in the oil and gas industries, building and construction, aerospace, automotive, cold chain, and other industries requiring maximum thermal protection within tight space and weight constraints. Spaceloft is used for low-pressure steam pipes, vessels, and equipment; sub-sea pipelines, hot pipes, vessels, and equipment; footwear and outdoor apparel. Other applications include tents, insulation for interior wall renovation, mobile home exteriors, tractor heat shielding, bus heat shielding, hot water pipes, and solar panels.

Pyrogel is used in medium-to-high pressure steam pipes, vessels, and equipment; aerospace and defense applications; fire barriers; welding blankets; footwear and outdoor apparel. Applications have included insulating an entire polycarbonate plant, a reactor exterior, high- altitude boots, water and gas piping, tubing bundles, yacht exhausts, large vessels, exhaust ducts, ships’ boilers, and underground steam lines. The insulation has been proven to be an effective underfoot barrier to extreme cold in the form of insoles for climbers on Mt. Everest, where their light weight and flexibility are also prized. They have even been tested as insoles for ultramarathoners—runners who jog past the 26.2 mile standard marathon distance and sometimes up to 100 miles at a time—who prize
the material for its light weight and excellent heat- insulating properties.

It is not just industry and the commercial realm that are benefiting from Aspen’s products, though. The work has come full circle, and Aspen is a regular provider of aerogel insulation to NASA, where the material is used on many diverse projects, for space shuttle applications, interplanetary propulsion, and life support equipment. On the space shuttle, it is used as an insulation on the external tank vent’s quick-disconnect valve, which releases at liftoff and reaches temperatures of -400 °F. It is also found on the shuttle launch pad’s fuel cell systems. At Stennis Space Center’s E-3 engine test stand, the blankets are used on the liquid oxygen lines.

In the laboratory, NASA scientists are working to incorporate insulating Aspen aerogels with new polymer materials to create a new category of materials and to create composite foam fillers.

Sponsored by NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, engineers are experimenting with the products to create an insulating material that could replace poured and molded foams for a plethora of applications, including in test facilities, on launch pads, and even on spacecraft.

Cryogel™, Spaceloft™, and Pyrogel™ are trademarks of Aspen Aerogels Inc.

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

In addition to the mammoth engineering challenge posed by launching a cargo-laden craft into space for a long-distance mission, keeping the crews safe and healthy for these extended periods of time in space poses further challenges, problems for which NASA scientists are constantly seeking new answers. Obstacles include maintaining long-term food supplies, ensuring access to clean air and potable water, and developing efficient means of waste disposal—all with the constraints of being in a spacecraft thousands of miles from Earth, and getting farther every minute. NASA continues to overcome these hurdles, though, and is in the process of designing increasingly efficient life support systems to make life aboard the International Space Station sustainable for laboratory crews, and creating systems for use on future lunar laboratories and the upcoming long trip to Mars.

altIdeal life support systems for these closed environments would take up very little space, consume very little power, and require limited crew intervention—these much-needed components would virtually disappear while doing their important jobs. One NASA experiment into creating a low-profile life support system involved living ecosystems in contained environments. Dubbed the Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems (CELSS) these contained systems attempted to address the basic needs of crews, meet stringent payload and power usage restrictions, and minimize space occupancy by developing living, regenerative ecosystems that would take care of themselves and their inhabitants—recreating Earth-like conditions.

Years later, what began as an experiment with different methods of bioregenerative life support for extended-duration, human-crewed space flight, has evolved into one of the most widespread NASA spinoffs of all time.

In the 1980s, Baltimore-based Martin Marietta Corporation worked with NASA to test the use of certain strains of microalgae as a food supply, oxygen source, and a catalyst for waste disposal as part of the CELSS experiments. The plan was for the microalgae to become part of the life support system on long-duration flights, taking on a plethora of tasks with minimal space, energy, and maintenance requirements. During this research, the scientists discovered many things about the microalgae, realizing ultimately that its properties were valuable to people not only in space, but here on Earth, as a nutritional supplement. The scientists, fueled by these discoveries, spun off from Martin Marietta, and in 1985, formed Martek Biosciences Corporation, in Columbia, Maryland.

Product Outcome
altNow, after two decades of continued research on the same microalgae studied for use in long-duration space flight, Martek has developed into a major player in the nutrition field, with over 500 employees and annual revenue of more than $270 million. The reach of the company’s space-developed product, though, is what is most impressive. Martek’s main products, life’sDHA and life’sARA, both of which trace directly back to the original NASA CELSS work, can be found in over 90 percent of the infant formulas sold in the United States, and are added to the infant formulas sold in over 65 additional countries. With such widespread use, the company estimates that over 24 million babies worldwide have consumed its nutritional additives.

Outside of the infant formula market, Martek’s commercial partners include General Mills Inc., Yoplait USA Inc., Odwalla Inc., Kellogg Company, and Dean Foods Company’s WhiteWave Foods division (makers of the Silk, Horizon Organic, and Rachel’s brands).

Why would so many people consume these products? The primary ingredient is one of the building blocks of health: A fatty acid found in human breast milk, known to improve brain function and visual development, which recent studies have indicated plays a significant role in heart health. It is only introduced to the body through dietary sources, so supplements containing it are in high demand.

The primary discovery Martek made while exploring properties of microalgae for use in long-duration space flights was identifying Crypthecodinium cohnii, a strain of algae that produces docosahexaenoc acid (DHA) naturally and in high quantities. Using the same principles, the company also patented a method for developing another fatty acid that plays a key role in infant health, arachidonic acid (ARA). This fatty acid, it extracts from the fungus Mortierella alpina.

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid, naturally found in the body, which plays a key role in infant development and adult health. Most abundant in the brain, eyes, and heart, it is integral in learning ability, mental development, visual acuity, and in the prevention and management of cardiovascular disease.

Approximately 60 percent of the brain is composed of structural fat (the gray matter), of which nearly half is composed of DHA. As such, it is an essential building block for early brain development, as well as a key structural element in maintaining healthy brain functioning through all stages of life. It is especially important in infancy, though, when the most rapid brain growth occurs—the human brain nearly triples in size during the first year of life. Breast milk, which is generally two-thirds fat, is a chief source for DHA for children, both a testament to the body’s need for this substance and an argument for sustainable sources that can be added to infant formula. Studies have shown that adults, too, need DHA for healthy brain functioning, and that the important chemical is delivered through the diet.

DHA is also a key component in the structural fat that makes up the eye, and is vital for visual development and ocular health. The retina, for example, contains a high concentration of DHA, which the body forms from nutritious fats in the diet. With heart tissue, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found supporting evidence that DHA consumption may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

This important compound, previously only found in human breast milk, and with undeniable nutritional value, is now available throughout the world. It is one example of how NASA research intended to sustain life in space has found its way back to Earth, where it is improving the lives of people everywhere.

life’sDHA™ and life’sARA™ are trademarks of Martek Biosciences Corporation.
Silk®, Horizon Organic®, and Rachel’s® are registered trademarks of the WhiteWave Foods Company.


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