Great NASA Tech Spinoffs Come Down to Earth
Anti-gravity treadmills based on exercise machines for astronauts now help rehabilitate injured soldiers and professional athletes.
Credit: Alter-G

NASA has always relied upon extreme engineering to tackle the equally extreme challenges of space exploration, and to enable the great scientific discoveries and feats of spaceflight that have dazzled the public over the decades. Much of that engineering has now come back down to Earth in the form of technological applications that touch the lives of millions, as detailed in the U.S. space agency's annual "Spinoff" report released this month.

Spinoff tech can creep into common items such as UV-resistant swimwear and clothing, or enter crucial systems such as third generation (3G) cellular networks. But whatever the application, all the spinoffs draw upon their strengths as rigorously engineered solutions driven by the unprecedented demands of space exploration.

For instance, NASA helped create a less brittle type of aerogel that insulates space shuttle systems against the subzero temperatures of its liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel, maintained at -297 degrees F and -423 degrees F, respectively. The same aerogel material has since become a part of oil pipeline insulation, extreme weather clothing and infrared shielding for military helicopters.

All those astronaut exercises aboard the International Space Station have translated into "anti-gravity" treadmills that help rehabilitate wounded soldiers, not to mention injured athletes on professional basketball and football teams. The G-Trainer device turns the original NASA concept on its head by adjusting air pressure to dial down the weight on a person's lower body, rather than adding weight to an astronaut's lower body in a low gravity space environment.

NASA engineers directly lent their talents in upgrading a robot that helps soldiers find improvised explosives in Iraq and Afghanistan. The engineers had borrowed two MARCBots as a means of testing a futuristic wireless network for deployment on the moon, but ended up replacing the analog camera with a digital camera, encrypting the controllers and video transmission against possible hacking, and boosting the robot's movement and communications. Hundreds of newly upgraded robots have now gone overseas to join their human wranglers in the U.S. military.

The search for life on Mars has inspired NASA scientists to create biosensors based on nanotubes that can detect illness-causing bacteria such as strains of E. coli. Such sensors cut down testing times from days to just two hours, and may soon help detect bacteria, viruses and other pathogens in everything from shower water to fruits and vegetables.

Even early space-age technology from the days of the Apollo program's splashdown landings continues to save human lives on Earth. Back then, NASA engineered a stabilized life raft that could resist choppy seas and avoid flipping over with astronauts inside during helicopter retrievals. If extreme circumstances managed to flip the tent-like raft, water ballast helped the raft do a somersault and right itself.

Entrepreneur Jim Givens bought the license to NASA's raft after patenting his own similar design, and has since sold several thousand of the inflatable rafts credited with saving the lives of over 450 people at sea. One raft went through the most brutal of tests during Hurricane Allen in 1980, when four men rode out 35-foot waves and wind gusts of up to 218 mph. Sometimes the raft became submerged beneath several feet of water and flipped before righting itself, which lead survivor Bob Harvey to comment, "We didn?t feel comfortable, but we did feel secure."

Some U.S. taxpayers may continue to grumble about a space agency that sets lofty goals and then sometimes scrambles to meet them. But in NASA's case, the technological journey and the act of reaching for new worlds has already borne much fruit on Earth.

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