Standards for Comfortable Seats
In the beginning, safety trumped comfort in spacecraft designs for human space travel. Early space capsules were small and had a seat-driven design in which most of the flight activities were performed while the crew was strapped into their seats. NASA devoted more attention to understanding how a spacecraft could provide comfort as well as safety and function. One of the first things NASA examined was the neutral body posture (NBP), or the posture the human body naturally assumes in microgravity.
By the 1980s, NASA had identified and documented the characteristics of NBP in the Man-Systems Integration Standards (MSIS), which specified ways to design spaceflight systems that support human health, safety, and productivity. Specifically, NASA used the NBP standard for the design of space workstations and tools.
A space shuttle study demonstrated that there is a range of NBPs for individuals. In another posture study, researchers found the spines of astronauts lengthened in zero gravity on the International Space Station (ISS) — information that has since influenced the size and design of the recently developed Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Lastly, NASA has future plans to perform a new study on the changes that occur to body shape, size, and NBP onboard the ISS.
NASA’s work on NBP has governed the development of everything from work areas in the ISS to comfortable new car seats in vehicles here on Earth. In 2005, engineers at Nissan Motor Company turned to NASA’s NBP research as a starting point for the development of a new driver’s seat for their vehicles. Because Nissan had observed that a person’s posture appeared to play a direct role in how physically tired he or she became while driving, the company decided to use NASA’s NBP as a benchmark for a comfortable, balanced posture, with the intention of lessening fatigue on a person’s body.
To decrease driver exhaustion, Nissan aimed to ensure the driver’s spine was supported to relax in its natural position, as outlined in NASA’s NBP studies. The company thought such a design would successfully minimize the muscular loading on a driver’s back, pelvis, and torso. In 2006, Nissan published the results of its first study on its new experimental seat with a two-piece backrest to maintain NBP. The results confirmed that the seat supported the spine and areas from the pelvis to the chest and improved blood flow.
The second phase of the company’s research, published in 2007, evaluated the prototype seat in dynamic long-term driving conditions on a freeway. The results showed a 50 percent reduction in physical exhaustion during driving. The authors maintained that the new driving posture supported by the seat was close to the NBP documented by NASA in microgravity conditions.
Nissan debuted the seat derived from NASA research in the 2013 Altima, and the company now has plans to include it in many upcoming Nissan and Infiniti vehicles. In addition, the technology will be applied not only to the driver’s and front passenger’s seats, but in the rear seats of the vehicles as well.
Lubricants Protect Against Corrosion
The Mobile Launcher Platform at Kennedy Space Center was used as a transportable launch base for the space shuttle. When it carried the weight of an unfueled space shuttle, it weighed about 11 million pounds. To transport a fully assembled space shuttle and the Mobile Launcher Platform from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad, NASA used a vehicle called a crawler. The crawler features eight tracks fitted with 7.5 × 1.5-foot shoes that help roll the massive vehicle and its payload along.
Back in 1994, NASA sought a new type of lubricant that would be safe for the environment and would help “grease the wheels” by making the 1-mile-per-hour, 3-mile trek of the shuttle-bearing launcher platform to the launch pad an easier process. To satisfy the environmental requirement, the lubricant had to be biodegradable. To account for the size and the weight of the space shuttle/platform combination, as well as the tortoiselike pace and the distance being traveled, the lubricant had to sustain a long operating life while in use. In addition, it had to provide complete protection from the corrosive sand and the heat that are a part of everyday life at Kennedy.
With the help of Lockheed Martin Space Operations — the contractor for launch operations at Kennedy — and private industry, NASA realized that a new kind of lube could go a long way to protect the environment as well as the integrity of a space shuttle mission.
To develop a special lubricant that could meet the stringent requirements for shuttle transport, NASA and Lockheed Martin Space Operations looked to The X-1R Corporation in Daytona, FL, which made lubricants for racecar engines and transmissions. The company formulated an advanced, environmentally friendly spray lubricant to replace the standard lubricant used during transport. The new biodegradable, high-performance lubricant, coined the X-1R Crawler Track Lube, first succeeded in trial tests and then succeeded when applied directly to the crawler.
The company created a full line of standard automotive and specially formulated racing products, including the X-1R Engine Treatment Concentrate, a formula that treats engine cylinder walls, bearings, cams, rings, and valve guides. It creates a molecular bond with ferrous metal, which leads to a dramatic reduction in friction and wear. It also protects against the harsh metal-to-metal contact that commonly occurs during cold starts. Other benefits are increased engine life and horsepower, improved fuel economy, and reduced engine noise and operating temperatures.
Heat Management Materials
For six years prior to the retirement of the space shuttle, the shuttles carried an onboard repair kit with a tool for emergency use: two tubes of NOAX. The sealant flew on all 22 flights following the Columbia accident, and was designed to repair damage that occurred on the exterior of the shuttle.
Although the sealant never had to be used in an emergency situation, it was tested by astronauts on samples of reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) during two shuttle missions. The material handled well on orbit, and tests showed the NOAX patch held up well on RCC. While NASA funded the full-scale development of NOAX, the sealant was actually invented by Alliant Techsystems (ATK). Under NASA funding, ATK contracted with Starfire Systems in Schenectady, NY to supply the unique polymer material that was incorporated into NOAX.
Called SMP-10, Starfire’s polymer was designed to convert into a ceramic at high temperatures. As it heated above 1,500 °F, it would start to convert to ceramic, where it could take much higher temperatures, allowing it to seal during the shuttle’s re-entry. SMP-10 was formulated and processed for incorporation into NOAX, which laid the groundwork for Starfire to achieve a repeatable process for a reliable product.
Starfire developed StarPCS for high-temperature applications on Earth. Today, the company manufactures a family of StarPCS products for lightweight components that need to withstand extreme temperatures. Domestic and foreign auto manufacturers are testing StarPCS for passenger vehicles. StarPCS formulas are also being tested for heat shields in vehicles with extremely hot engines.
Specifically, StarPCS is being used in the test platforms for Formula 1 race cars. The teams are currently looking for a new exhaust management design to divert exhaust by routing it through body panels. It would use the aerodynamic suction to pull the gases out of the engine faster and allow a 1 to 3 percent increase in horsepower. Auto manufacturers outside of racing are also looking for alternative materials for heat management in turbo chargers. Manufacturers want to make exhaust pipes out of something other than metal so the pipe can withstand higher temperatures.
Even though NASA no longer uses the innovative solution for space shuttle repairs, the Agency is incorporating SMP-10 into some of the safety components for Orion, NASA’s next multi-purpose crew vehicle.
Langley Research Center created a superior polyimide foam as insulation for reusable cryogenic propellant tanks on the space shuttle. At the time, the foam insulation on the tanks had a limited lifetime: one launch. The foam on the shuttle’s external tanks needed to insulate the super-cooled liquid propellant, preventing ice from forming on the tanks and surrounding areas, and posing catastrophic risk from debris during launch. The insulation also needed to be able to withstand the high temperatures the tanks would experience during ignition and launch. The researchers named their new foam TEEK.
A partnership with Florida-based PolyuMAC improved the chemical structure of the NASA-developed foam, leading to a new product, FPF-44, with commercial applications. PolyuMAC was looking for advanced foams to use in the customized manufacturing of acoustical and thermal insulation. During this search, the founder and president of PolyuMAC came across information about the TEEK foam developed at Langley. He read about TEEK and contacted Langley for samples and technical data sheets.
He determined that TEEK was not the right density for his needed applications, but rather than dismiss the endeavor altogether, he contacted the inventors and asked for help tweaking the TEEK chemistry to bring it more in line with his needs. He licensed the foam from NASA to begin modifications. They named this new generation of foam FPF-44.
The NASA-PolyuMAC team is continuing to collaborate on the foam, trying to further reduce density while maintaining its insulating properties. The commercial version of the joint NASA-PolyuMAC foam is called Polyshield, and offers the same qualities as the NASA next-generation, high-performance, flexible polyimide foam, and shows promise for use in automobiles and automotive products, recreation equipment, and building and construction materials.
It features flame-retardant qualities, thermal insulation, and acoustic insulation factors, as well as weight reduction. The finished product can be flexible or rigid, structural or non-structural. The insulating foam can also be applied to gaskets and seals, vibration damping pads, spacers in adhesives and sealants, extenders, and flow-leveling aids. The products provide excellent insulation for sound, cryogenics, and heat, and can be used for fire protection. While it holds at very high temperatures, if it does burn, it will not produce smoke or harmful byproducts.