Spinoff 2011: Unexpected Earth Products from Space

NASA (Photo credit: Luke Bryant)

It’s that time again when you get to hear Bill Housley rant about spinoffs for the year.

First, in review, Spinoffs are products and technologies that NASA has either directly or indirectly helped with.  This help can take the form of grants, contracts, technical assistance, field testing, or sometimes even outright invention of something that would not exist except by looking at some problem from the perspective of space exploration.

Every innovation that we enjoy in our lives goes through a series of generational evolutions.  Each stage of that evolution requires a champion to successfully push it forward either into something lucrative or at least the next stage.  Sometimes that champion is NASA.  NASA has a policy of supporting ideas that they might find useful someday, and usually some of the later generations of that idea come back and effect non-space related things in some way or other.

The list of these spinoffs grows every year.  You may be shocked by just how long it is.  I would like to mention here just a few in the 2011 list that impressed me the most.

Safer high pressure hose fittings.

When a high-pressure hose disconnects under pressure, the supply side can swing rapidly, striking and injuring workers.  To prevent this at the Space Station Processing Facility, NASA engineers developed and built a two-stage disconnect fitting which secures the supply end until after the pressure is released.  Through a technology transfer agreement, Oklahoma’s PT Coupling Company is now manufacturing and using these fittings on their products.

Albumin Research

Have you ever heard someone say, “We need a cure for AIDS and Cancer more than we need space exploration.”  Well, what started with protein crystal growth experiments in microgravity aboard the Space Shuttle ended in vastly improved knowledge of a blood protein called Albumin.  With it came advancement in AIDS research and techniques that can lower the necessary doses of medication in Chemotherapy treatments for cancer patients.

Mass Analyzers

As I said earlier, NASA awards grants and contracts to companies to help them develop and refine technologies that NASA needs.  Those companies are then free to use those advancements in whatever else they do.  This process often expands innovation in completely unrelated directions.  Such is the case with Iowerks, a company who builds a special type of mass spectrometer for NASA to monitor, quickly and with astonishing precision, the trace gases inside the Space Shuttle.  This mass analyzer technology is revolutionary and is now used in medical applications for detecting the biomarkers of various addictions and neurological diseases.

Bioreactors and Tissue Engineering

An accidental discovery by researchers at Johnson Space Center resulted in the creation of the Rotating Wall Bioreactor.  The technology was so far ahead of its potential clients that new research had to be funded to develop a market for it, which in turn triggered much-needed advances in tissue engineering…growing implantable human tissues.  NASA originated the discovery and then NASA grants kept the technology funded while the industry caught up with it.

Apache OODT

As a twenty year computer professional I’m totally geeking out about this one.  NASA collects all of their scientific data from their various probes, rovers, orbiters, and satellites in a database that they call their Planetary Data System.  That’s cool enough, but the spinoff is the very powerful distributed data system that they use for sharing with their partners.  It is called Object Oriented Data Technology…OODT.  They have now released OODT into the public domain through the Apache Software Foundation.  NASA now gets the benefit of the open source community in improving and supporting the software while other scientific organizations, like the National Cancer Institute, get to use the technology to store and distribute their data.  Win win.

I could stop there, but I’m not going to.  I’m having far too much fun!

High Pressure Fire Suppression

Basically, rocket engine design research has now transferred over to build far more effective fire hose nozzles through a company called HMA Fire.

Control Algorithms Charge Batteries Faster

Here is another one of many situations where NASA has supported innovations in power storage technology.  Sometime they invent it and share.  Here they hired someone to solve one of their problems and helped them improve a product to fit their needs and the needs of others.  Through this green tech innovation, charging a battery from multiple power sources is now more efficient.

Photographic Dimensions

During a launch in 2003, a large chunk of frozen insulation from the large External Tank broke off and struck the leading edge of the wing of the Space Shuttle Columbia.  NASA researchers thought, wrongly, that no damage resulted from that impact.  When the Columbia reentered the atmosphere on February 1st hot gasses from the reentry burned past the protective tiles until the shuttle’s wing failed and the entire orbiter, with everyone on board, was lost.  During the investigation into the incident, NASA developed computer software for estimating the dimensions of an object from a digital photograph.  DigiContractor Corporation licensed the software as a product called uPhotoMeasure.  Now that ability is available for various other types of investigation as well as construction projects.

Carbon Nanotubes

NASA’s Glenn Research Center developed a one-step process for growing carbon nanotubes, the next generation of light-weight, high-strength fabrication material.  This spun off into a new company called Nanotech Innovations which uses the technique to make high quality Carbon Nanotubes for research.  Carbon Nanotubes still need more development before you start to see them in products, but now NASA has given that development a boost.

Thermo Plastics

One carbon-based material that is in common use today is carbon fiber.  This fiber is interwoven with other materials, soaked in a resin, and spread and molded into a variety of light-weight, high-strength composite products.  One step in this process is to heat the resulting object in an expensive oven called an autoclave.  This makes the use of composite materials extra expensive for larger objects…like rockets.  Now a company called Accudyne Systems, working with NASA, has refined a technology called Thermo Plastics to use composites to build objects without the need for an autoclave.  This will make composite products more common as the price of constructing them drops.

This is only a sample of some of the spinoffs announced by NASA and its partners in 2011.  They have announced many others in the past–dating back some 30 or more years.  For more information, click here.


Where is all of this going?  That is the glory of it all–no one knows.  We can anticipate more to come, but it is impossible to say exactly whatnew inventions and products will come out of Space Exploration.  As the industry expands and the price drops, we can expect the side-benfits to expand also.

So don’t let folks say that money spent on space is spent in space.  It isn’t.

~ by Bill Housley on February 23, 2012.

One Response to “Spinoff 2011: Unexpected Earth Products from Space”

  1. […] Spinoff 2011: Unexpected Earth Products from Space […]

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