In direct response to the National Research Council’s report “Capabilities for the Future: An Assessment of NASA Laboratories for Basic Research, 2010,” the Space Technology program was born and formally approved by the NASA Administrator in 2009. Consisting of ten technology development and innovation programs that are broadly applicable to the Agency’s aeronautics, science, and exploration enterprises, the program is managed by the Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) through the formation of three divisions: Early Stage Innovation, Game Changing Technology, and Crosscutting Compatibility Demonstrations.

Dr. Martha Williams and Dr. Luke Roberson extruding polymer materials.

Kennedy Space Center (KSC), well-known for ground operations and launch for the Space Shuttle, has provided research in robotics, science, engineering, human factors, and many areas needed to get back to the Moon and to go to Mars and beyond. Much of this research has led to commercial products that have benefited other industries and agencies. The new agency alignment of research and technology capabilities has meant an increased focus on technology at Kennedy. Kennedy has eight recognized research and technology capability areas wherein broadly applicable technologies are developed for multiple customers and to satisfy national needs. The following is a look at four KSC technologies being developed in two of these areas.

Storage, Distribution, and Conservation of Fluids (Cryogens, Liquids, Gases)

Hydrogen is an inherently dangerous gas due to its combustibility and invisible flame. Area sensors only detect the presence, not the source of a hydrogen leak. This presents problems in high wind environments such as launch pads where a leak may not be detected at all. The Hydrogen Tape, developed in collaboration with the Florida Solar Energy Center, overcomes these limitations by providing users with an easily deployable visual indication system that can precisely pinpoint the leak. This tape can effectively identify leaks in pipe flanges and connections that area sensors and flame cameras may miss. Work is also underway at KSC to develop HyperTape, a tape that can visually detect the presence of hypergols, another dangerous but ubiquitous chemical.

KSC researchers were able to achieve between 25-50 percent reductions in thermal heat transfer without greatly affecting the mechanical properties or processing conditions of Aerogel composite materials when compared to the base materials. This approach is important to reduce weight of lunar habitat systems, cryogenic storage tanks, and piping where weight and thermal conductivity are crucial to mission success.

While this research benefits KSC operations, which require the use of large amounts of cryogenic liquids from fuels (such as liquid hydrogen and oxygen) to purge gases (such as liquid helium), it will also benefit commercial businesses. In particular, the oil and gas industry uses and processes low-temperature commodities such as liquefied hydrocarbons, where any decrease in thermal conductivity reduces cooling costs and boil-off, directly impacting the company’s bottom line. Advanced building products, such as hardy plank siding, wood decking, and roofing materials containing AeroPlastic™, would reduce home energy loss through improved thermal insulation. The Aerofoam™ technology could also have medical industry applications in maintaining required temperatures of medicines and pre-transplant storage during long-term shipment.

Material for Lifecycle Optimization

Dr. Martha Williams and Dr. Luke Roberson on the pad slope of Launch Complex 39A prior to launch of STS-134. The hydrogen sensing tape manufactured in collaboration with DeWAL Industries was deployed on flanges at the pad for several shuttle launches.

KSC has an important portfolio of novel and game-changing technologies to detect the location of wiring faults, and either manually or autonomously self-repair the damage. Detection occurs by Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) or other forms of reflectometry that will use new conductive detection layers in the new wire construction. Further, an integrated prognostic/diagnostic Smart Wire System plans to incorporate “self-healing” materials, negating the need to manually repair a wire if damage is within the size tolerance for self-healing capability. Wire damage detection and repair are major problems for NASA and are also found in many systems across many industries. Government, commercial, and private aircraft, battleships, automobiles, industrial processes, mining industry, power production facilities, and server farms all contain miles of crucial wiring infrastructure that could be impacted by the incorporation of this technology.

Furthermore, KSC has led research into “smart coating” systems that autonomously detect and inhibit corrosion of metal structures through the use of pH-sensitive microcapsules. Like pills that release their contents when exposed to stomach acid, microcapsules for smart coatings are designed to release their contents (corrosion inhibitors and/or indicators) in response to certain pH levels caused by corrosion.

Kennedy Space Center has over 20 laboratories and a dedicated KSC Chief Technologist, Karen Thompson, who is a polymer chemist and worked in industry before joining NASA in 1988. Karen sees her role as providing technology-focused leadership in an integrated and sustainable manner, and to communicate the relevance and value of KSC’s technology development activities. Karen, together with Dave Collins, KSC Deputy Chief Technologist, provides advocacy for KSC’s technology development capabilities and insight to ongoing technology projects.

More Information

For more information on the featured technologies, contact Jim Nichols, Licensing Manager, at 321-867-6384, or Jeff Kohler, Technology Manager, at 321-861-7158.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the August, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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