NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) has been a leader in human space exploration for more than half a century. Established in 1961 in Houston, TX as the Manned Spacecraft Center, the center was renamed in 1973 to honor the late president Lyndon B. Johnson. From the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs, to the International Space Station (ISS) and Orion, the center has been at the forefront of America's human spaceflight programs.

NASA astronauts participate in a spacewalk training session at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) — the world's largest indoor pool — near JSC. (NASA)

JSC presently serves as the home of Mission Control, NASA's lead for ISS operations and missions, home to the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, and numerous advanced human exploration projects. The center also plays an important role in NASA's Commercial Crew programs.

Leading Human Exploration

Johnson is the home of the United States’ astronaut corps. Every one of the more than 500 NASA astronauts and international space partners has trained at JSC to fly every manned mission of the ISS, Space Shuttle, Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury. All aspects of astronaut crew selection, training, and flight preparation occur at JSC. Training facilities, spacesuits and tools, EVA planning and preparation, crew systems, crew health and performance — every aspect of how humans live and work in space now and for the journey to Mars originates from JSC.

In the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, astronauts, engineers, and other mission support professionals learn skills and procedures to operate the space station using high-fidelity, full-scale mockups of the complex's different habitable elements. Astronauts preparing for spacewalks or robotic arm operations hone their skills in the Virtual Reality Laboratory, which immerses them in a computer-generated microgravity environment. In the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near JSC, astronauts train for spacewalks in the world's largest indoor pool.

Johnson's Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center has been the focal point of America's human spaceflight programs. The flight directors and controllers in Mission Control have been vital to every U.S. human spaceflight since the Gemini IV mission in 1965, including the Apollo missions that took humans to the Moon for the first time and all 135 space shuttle flights. With a permanent human presence aboard the International Space Station, flight control teams of experienced engineers, medical officers, and technicians are on duty 24/7, 365 days a year. Working with counterparts overseas, flight controllers keep a constant watch on the crew's activities and monitor space systems, crew health, and safety.

Commercializing Space

The Exploration Integration and Science Directorate provides research, strategy, mission planning, systems development, integration, and investment focus for the future of human space exploration. In addition to providing enterprise-level integration across exploration systems, the directorate supplies architecture design and mission concept formulation bringing together all of the disparate elements required for planning and integrating complementary human and robotic exploration missions stepping out into the solar system. To support and enable exploration, the directorate provides strategies and priorities for partnership and investment focus of technology advanced system development to meet mission concept and architecture needs.

NASA's Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry as companies develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and the space station. Commercial transportation to and from the station will provide expanded utility, additional research time, and broader opportunities of discovery on the orbiting laboratory.

Inside JSC's facilities and elsewhere, engineers are building upon decades of spaceflight research and knowledge to develop the most advanced deep space crew vehicle ever conceived. NASA's Orion program is managed at JSC where a team of engineers oversees the design, development, and testing of the spacecraft, as well as spacecraft manufacturing taking place across the country and in Europe.

Orion is NASA's spacecraft that will send astronauts to deep space destinations, including on the journey to Mars. Orion features technology advancements and innovations that have been incorporated into the spacecraft's design. It includes crew and service modules, a spacecraft adapter, and a revolutionary launch abort system that will significantly increase crew safety.

Advancing Scientific Knowledge

Teams of scientists, physicians, and other researchers are advancing insight into human adaptability to microgravity and developing countermeasures to mitigate the challenges to human health and performance associated with long stays in space.

The Human Research Program (HRP) is dedicated to discovering the best biomedical methods and technologies to ensure safe, productive human space travel. The program works to improve astronauts’ abilities to carry out their duties, solve problems, respond to emergencies, and remain healthy during and after long-duration space missions. Through national and international collaborations, HRP conducts research aboard the space station, at Johnson and other NASA centers, and in universities and institutions around the world to address challenges faced by humans in space.

One of the most in-depth HRP projects was the Twins Study, which focused on four categories of research split into 10 investigations to evaluate identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. These investigations provided broader insight into the subtle effects and changes that may occur in spaceflight as compared to Earth. This was done by studying two individuals who have the same genetics but were in different environments for one year — one in space and one on Earth. Ten separate investigators coordinated and shared all data and analysis as one large, integrated research team.

Technologies

Innovators at JSC have patented many technologies that have dual use both within NASA and in the commercial and industrial arenas.

Solar-powered refrigeration system. This eliminates reliance on an electric grid, requires no batteries, and stores thermal energy for efficient use when sunlight is absent. The environmentally friendly system is ideal for use in commercial or household refrigerators, freezers, vaccine coolers, or solar ice-makers. It is particularly ideal for off-grid applications.

Microwave-based water decontamination. This system purifies contaminated water by eradicating and eliminating bacteria that grows in systems that generate potable water, in equipment utilizing cooling loops and heat exchangers, and removing bacterial contamination that is present on a variety of surfaces. This decontamination system is chemical-free and requires minimal to no consumables.

Humanoid robot. Researchers at JSC, General Motors, and Oceaneering designed a state-of-the-art, highly dexterous humanoid robot called Robonaut 2 (R2). R2's nearly 50 patented and patent-pending technologies have the potential to be game-changers in multiple industries including logistics and distribution, medical and industrial robotics, as well as hazardous, toxic, or remote environments.

Freeze-resistant hydration system. The technology substantially improves on existing hydration systems because it prevents water from freezing in the tubing, container, and mouthpiece, even in the harshest conditions. The device was originally conceived and designed by an astronaut-mountaineer who recognized the great risk of dehydration in high mountains and the lack of sufficient technology to meet this important need.

Robonaut 2 — a collaboration between NASA and GM — surpasses previous dexterous humanoid robots in strength, yet is safe enough to work side-by-side with humans. It is able to lift — not just hold — a 20-pound weight both near and away from its body. (NASA)

Battery management system. The BMS monitors and balances the charge of individual battery cells in series and provides fault detection of individual cells in parallel within a battery pack of hundreds of cells. The circuit uses fewer connections (pins) than competing technologies, which reduces complexity and improves reliability. It offers a safe and potentially low-cost management system for high-voltage battery systems, including lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery systems used in electric vehicles and other next-generation renewable energy applications.

Battery charge equalizer. This system provides individual cell charging in multi-cell battery strings using a minimum number of transformers. By effectively keeping all the cells at the same charge state, this technology maximizes the battery's life and performance. The innovation achieves equalization without wasting energy or creating excess heat and offers safe and low-cost management for Li-ion batteries used in electric vehicles.

Resistive exercise device. A person who is inactive for an extended period of time loses strength, as well as muscle and bone mass. Astronauts on the ISS face similar risks, because bones and muscles begin to atrophy in the absence of gravity. Resistive exercise, in which the musculoskeletal system bears weight, mitigates these effects. But lifting weights does not work without gravity. The Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) for astronauts can exercise all of the major muscle groups, focusing on squats, dead lifts, and calf raises, and helps the crew maintain their strength and endurance.

Passive smart container. The Passive Smart Container monitors and tracks items that are too small to tag individually. The system uses RFID circuits to identify the fill level in a container and could be easily converted for use in industries such as individual healthcare management and supply chain inventory management. Use of this technology enables the manufacturer, distributor supplier, or user to easily manage and control an inventory of small items such as bulk foods, liquids, pills, mechanical parts (nuts, bolts, and washers), and small electronic components.

Aerogel weighs virtually nothing, is flexible and translucent, and can hold up under -3000 °F. Crayons placed on top of a piece of silica aerogel will not melt from the heat of a flame. (NASA)

Technologies developed at JSC also have been licensed by commercial companies, creating products that have had an impact on our everyday lives. For example, phase change materials (PCMs), like ice cubes in a drink, absorb heat as they change from solid to liquid, and if exposed to colder temperatures, they release that heat as they refreeze. JSC used PCMs to manage heat inside a spacesuit. The method was commercialized into wraps and blankets that keep babies at an optimal temperature.

Aerogels are among the lightest solid materials known to man. They are created by combining a polymer with a solvent to form a gel, and then removing the liquid from the gel and replacing it with air. A number of companies have licensed this technology for applications including insulation for piping, building and construction, appliances and refrigeration equipment, and trucks and automobiles, as well as for clothing and shoes that resist both heat loss and heat gain.

Concepts and hardware developed by JSC for astronauts in extravehicular space or on the Moon were used to develop lightweight firefighter air tanks. A new breathing system also was designed that is one-third the weight of previous systems. The system includes a face mask, frame and harness, a warning device, and the air bottle with its associated valves and regulator. The basic air cylinder uses aluminum/composite materials. The new face mask offers better visibility and closer fit, and the air depletion warning device is designed so that the beeping alarm could be heard only by the wearer to minimize confusion in the hectic environment of a fire scene.

NASA developed phase-change materials (PCMs) to manage heat inside a spacesuit. Embrace Innovations’ NASA-derived product line of baby swaddles includes PCMs in the fabrics to regulate body temperature, absorbing heat when babies get too warm, and releasing it when they are cool.

Keeping ski goggles from fogging is just one of dozens of uses for anti-fog coating developed at JSC to keep spacecraft windows clear before launch. The coating includes a liquid detergent, deionized water, and an oxygen-compatible, fire-resistant oil. Applications include deep-sea diving masks, fire protection helmets, eyeglasses, and vehicle windows.

Strategic Partnerships

Johnson Space Center seeks partners with ideas for collaborative development to mature technologies required for future missions. Partnerships also enhance life on Earth by accelerating technology development and strengthening commercialization of federally funded research and development.

The Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office (TTO) at JSC facilitates the transfer and commercialization of NASA-sponsored research and technology as well as the use of JSC's unique research and development capabilities and facilities.

JSC works with entrepreneurs, companies, and investors to license NASA-developed technologies so they can bring them to the marketplace.

For more information, visit the TTO here.