ASEE Prism On-line, February 2000
NASA's Other Mission - Fromlifesaving medical advances to baby formula, the agency's research from exploring other worlds keeps finding its way into ours.
By Wray Herbert

With her new light-proof suit made of matieral designed by NASA, five-year-old Hayley Fenwick was able to venture outdoors without suffering damage to her skin. With her new light-proof suit made of matieral designed by NASA, five-year-old Hayley Fenwick was able to venture outdoors without suffering damage to her skin.

Sarah Moody didn't know much about space-age technology in 1985, when her 8-year-old nephew Stevie came to visit her from North Carolina's Smoky Mountains. All that the Hampton, Virginia, housewife knew was that her unairconditioned car was hot, and that Stevie was in trouble. The boy suffered from a rare disorder called hypohydrotic ectodermal dysplasia, which means he was born without sweat glands, and in the summer heat he was quickly becoming dangerously overheated.

Holding off panic, Moody pulled the car over and found the highest technology available—a water hose—and soaked her nephew until his body temperature returned to normal. Her quick thinking and the water hose probably saved Stevie's life, but in the aftermath, still shaken, she remembers thinking to herself, "If the government can put a man on the moon, surely they can do something to help Stevie."

Fortunately, others before her had the same thought. Showing uncommon initiative, she decided to phone the government—specifically, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA—and cut immediately through the federal bureaucracy to the agency's Technology Transfer and Commercialization Program. This office was created specifically to contemplate Moody's "If-the-government-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon" question—that is, to think about and promote Earth-bound uses for space-age technologies.

In this case the answer was easy: Yes, the government could help Stevie. NASA scientists adapted cooling technologies developed for the space suits of Apollo mission astronauts to make a cooling vest that kept Stevie's internal organs—and thus the rest of his body—from overheating. That first vest led to the creation of the HED Foundation—headed up by Moody—which has in the years since put more than 650 vests in the hands of people who, like Stevie, suffer from cooling malfunctions.

The foundation has also acted as a go-between for NASA and people suffering from rare skin disorders so severe that the victims blister in the sunlight and often are required to remain indoors, going outside only at night. With "space suits" modeled on the Apollo astronauts' familiar apparel, Moody says proudly, more than 40 people today have been able to leave their homes and venture out into the sunlight for the first time.

This is precisely the way—or at least one of the ways—that NASA's tech transfer program is supposed to work, and it's been part of the space program's mission since its inception in 1958. That mandate—to share technologies developed for space exploration with private business and nonprofits—has been made more and more explicit over the years, and has been given special focus under the leadership of current NASA administrator Daniel Goldin.

Indeed, in 1994 Goldin inaugurated a new policy called "Agenda for Change," which deliberately moved the space agency away from typical government-style practices like the use of contracts, and toward more flexible, business-friendly partnerships. With this philosophy, NASA can do basically anything that private industry might do—sharing of resources and facilities, collaborations among scientists and engineers, and so forth—to leverage the tax dollars spent on space into unanticipated public benefits.

Reaching Out

The NASA program attempts to do this in two ways: by directly enhancing the quality of Americans' lives, as with the HED Foundation, and by stimulating the economy with profit-making ideas. Many of the technology spinoffs have to do with health and medicine. For example, the CAT scanners and MRI technology that are widely used today for both research and hospital diagnosis have their roots in the Apollo space program, whose researchers developed the scanners to produce computer-enhanced pictures of the moon.

Similarly, imaging instruments that detect breast cancer tumors come from technologies used in the Hubble Space Telescope; these detectors are used today by hundreds of thousands of women, according to NASA, saving about a billion dollars a year in medical costs. And a children's hospital in Texas has modeled its "mission control desk" after the design and operations of the mission control operation at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

But medicine is just one arena in which NASA has recycled its research for the public good. Communication is another. Companies looking to expand cellular phone service recently filed permits totaling $40 billion for use of radio frequencies, all based on technologies developed by NASA. For public safety, a technology developed by NASA engineers to control vibrations for microgravity experiments aboard the space shuttle is being turned into tools that architects and construction engineers can use to make earthquake-resistant buildings. And a remote detection system developed to find leaks in the shuttle's solid rocket boosters is now being made available to factories to detect and plug costly air leaks. The list goes on.

One would think that the availability of such valuable research and technology would have American entrepreneurs clamoring at the doors of NASA headquarters. But the fact is that it's not easy to spot the commercial potential of sometimes esoteric space-age technologies. NASA's tech transfer program is designed specifically to facilitate that process, and uses a variety of mechanisms to do so.

Each of the agency's ten regional centers, for example, has a technology transfer office, or TTO, staffed with people trained to act as liaisons between NASA scientists and engineers and the American public. The process involves meetings with scientists through which TTO officers acquaint themselves with emerging space technologies, and the use of professional conferences, the media, and the Internet to advertise those technologies—and suggest their commercial potential—to businesses, universities, and regional economic development authorities. The result of this activist approach has been the transfer of thousands of ideas, worth millions of dollars to the U.S. economy, from the space agency to the private sector.

Down to Earth

Propulsion systems technology spawned a selectively lockable knee brace for rehabilitation

An implantable LED probe that treats cancer much more cheaply than a laser came from research on space-based plant growth.

A NASA inventor developed a lightwight device that zaps ice from commercial aircraft wings

As much as Americans are affected daily by these advances in health, communications, and public safety, the NASA spinoffs they probably notice most are those found around the home. For example, that cordless drill or Dustbuster probably wouldn't exist were it not for the Apollo moon mission, which required among other things a lightweight, battery-powered drill to collect core samples. And it was NASA that first insisted on smoke and fire detectors for its Skylab; the devices are now required by law in all new homes. Home insulation, Ray-Ban sunglasses, swimming suits, infant formula, and, of course, Tang all derive indirectly from our yearning to explore the heavens.

HED Foundation and Related Disorders
P.O. Box 9421
Hampton, VA 23607
(757) 826-0045

Kentucky Headquarters
P.O. Box 708
Uniontown, KY, 42461
(270) 822-4564

"If the government can put a man on the moon . . . ." Sarah Moody's question inspired her foundation's motto: "A walk on the moon means a walk in the sun." And who knows, now that kids who were previously confined to their darkened homes are out romping, perhaps they'll get to appreciate one of the truly astonishing advances to come out of NASA's basic aeronautics research: a Nerf glider, from the Hasbro toy company, which thanks to government scientists can now perform a near-perfect loop-the-loop.

 

Wray Herbert is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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