NASA Spin-offs: Bringing Space Down to Earth

To most space enthusiasts, the term "technology spin-off" harkens up visions of Apollo astronauts taking a swig of Tang or sealing Velcro flaps on their flight suits. However, it may come as a surprise to many that neither product was "invented" for the space program. Both Tang and Velcro were commercially available products that were adapted for space travel use (their use in spaceflight may have contributed to their subsequent commercial popularity, however.)

NASA defines technology "spin-offs" as those commercially available products (systems, processes or services) that incorporate NASA-originating technology or technical assistance.

NASA has consistently endeavored since its inception to ensure that their research and development activities can be applied with broad impact (e.g. beyond spaceflight). A Commercial Technology Transfer Network has evolved over the years to function as a resource for scientific and technical information and outreach. It includes 10 Commercial Technology Offices at each NASA field center which work closely with the National Technology Transfer Center in Wheeling, WV (which provides access to all federally-funded research and technologies) and its affiliated Regional Technology Transfer Centers, NASA incubators (designed to assist small business development), and other small business programs, including the NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, the NASA Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program, The Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) for Technology Transfer, and the National Robotics Engineering Consortium (NREC).

There are many resources for obtaining information on NASA technology spin-offs. The NASA Scientific and Technical Information (STI) Program ( ), which manages the NASA Center for AeroSpace Information, "acquires, processes, archives, announces and disseminates NASA's internal, as well as worldwide, STI." (Spinoff 2002.)

A monthly magazine, NASA Tech Briefs ( features articles authored by engineers or scientists who created technology innovations with NASA, industry partners and contractors that may point to spin-off potential for such original work. Aerospace Technology Innovation ( is a bimonthly publication of the NASA Office of Aerospace Technology which is another resource for information on potential technology spin-offs. NASA Spinoff ( ) is an annual publication that summarizes the "best of the best" research and development within NASA and "success stories" of commercialization of NASA technology.

Finally, NASA TechFinder (the NASA Technology Portal) ( is a website that provides access to NASA's technology inventory and commercialization "success stories"--technologies successfully adapted for use in the private sector.

Since 1976, over 1300 NASA technology spin-offs can be found in many industries and in daily life. For example, computer-chip minaturization, an outcropping from many of the early manned spaceflight activities, has revolutionized items we commonly use today- cell phones, personal data assistants (PDAs), cordless screwdrivers, just to name a few. Some of the most amazing spin-offs, however, have been applied in the medical field. The Apollo Program, for example, resulted in many advances:

CAT Scanners and MRI technology (Computer-Aided Tomography and Magnetic Resonance Imaging):  diagnostic tools that originated from computer-enhancement technology developed for lunar imaging.

"Cool suits": the fabric mesh outfit embedded with tubing for water circulation that was part of the Apollo moon suit assembly, kept astronauts comfortable during their lunar excursions. The suit was adapted for use by race car drivers, nuclear reactor technicians, shipyard workers, people with multiple sclerosis (MS) and others with conditions impairing their ability to sweat to keep them as comfortable as their astronaut counterparts.

"Space Blankets": aluminum foil overlays on propylene or mylar functioned as insulation barriers in astronaut moon suits and as a radiation barrier for their spacecraft's delicate instruments; they are sold in camping stores to protect hikers from exposure (hypothermia)... or to keep screaming fans from freezing in the stands at a football game!

A related spin-off, originating from the gold-plating technique NASA developed for coating Apollo astronaut helmet visors (to protect from UV exposure and blinding sunlight and fogging on the lunar surface), has been adapted for creating the thin layer of electrically conducting gold encased in plastic coating on infant radiant warmers which is used in hospital nurseries to maintain body temperature shortly after birth or post-operative recovery. Similar warming devices have been developed for burn victims as well.

Other innovations that have emerged in the post-Apollo era are equally captivating:

Innovations in Dental Care: Transparent polycrystalline alumina (TPA) was originally identified by NASA and Ceradyne for helping track heat-seeking missiles. Ceradyne went on to partner with Unitek Corporation/3M to develop Transcend Brackets?, made from TPA. These orthodontic braces are as effective as metal braces, but are nearly invisible when viewed at normal distances, thus providing a more attractive cosmetic option for the wearer. In another creation, a nickel and titanium alloy known as Nitinol, originally developed by NASA for aerospace application, is used in a type of dental arch wire, which has orthodontic application. In contrast to the traditional steel arch wire, the Nitinol arch wire reduces the number of times braces require adjustment, since it returns to its original shape as teeth are pulled (the alloy is a type of "memory metal" which does not kink when bent.) Similar "memory metal" alloys have also found application as frames for eyeglasses. Other dental items that have been developed out of NASA technologies include a portable dental system, which can be used to provide dental care to isolated communities (a dental chair, stool, x-ray unit and collapsible compressed air tank all fold up into packages; the tank design was based on collapsible stow-away tanks designed for NASA spacecraft) and an imaging device (based on patented NASA work with ultrasound) that can be used to diagnose and monitor periodontal disease.

Breast Cancer Detection: More precise and safer breast imaging has resulted from NASA video imaging with digital processing work and Space Telescope technologies which may improve the image quality of mammographies and the precision of stereotactic large-core needle biopsy of breast tissue. Solar cells (used for converting radiant energy to electrical energy on spacecraft) have been coupled with X-ray imaging to reduce radiation exposure for patients and has increased the life-span of breast imaging equipment.

Light-emitting diodes: Originally developed by NASA for Space Shuttle plant growth experiments, these "light therapy" devices have found use in reducing wound-healing time for mucositis (severe sores in the mouth and esophagus which often accompany high-dose chemotherapy for cancer) and are being tested as "photodynamic therapy" with promising results in patients with intractable brain, liver, rectal, skin and esophageal cancers.

Infrared Thermometer: Infrared sensors were developed by NASA for the measurement of the temperature of distant celestial objects. This technology led to the development of an optical sensor thermometer, which provides body temperature readings rapidly when its probe is placed inside the ear canal. This is particularly useful for children and the elderly, where a minimally invasive procedure is preferred.

Surgical improvements: JPL has partnered with MicroDexterity Systems Inc. to develop a robotic microsurgery device which may be particularly useful for eye and brain surgeries. Operator muscle tremor is reduced significantly with this device, which uses computer compensated motion control. Robotic devices are also being applied for other innovations, including the use of telepresence for obtaining greater precision with differentiating normal tissue from tumors when performing biopsies, and the use of robotics to provide better surgical control of the surgical camera used in laparoscopy. Cardiac devices. Minaturized space circuitry and adaptations of telemetry protocols used for programming satellites led to significant reduction in the size of heart pacemakers and automatic internal defibrillators (AICDs) and permitted them to be programmed without surgery. Angioplasty, the use of catheters and related devices such as lasers to "unclog" diseased blood vessels (particularly around the heart) was improved with the introduction of the "cool" laser, or excimer laser (originally developed by NASA). This device does not damage blood vessel walls, is more precise that other forms of angioplasty and may have fewer associated complications.Finally, technology used in Space Shuttle fuel pumps led renowned heart surgeon (and member of the NSS Board of Governors) Michael DeBakey to the development of a miniaturized heart (ventricular) assist device (VAD), which can be used as a means of keeping heart transplant candidates alive while they are waiting for a donor organ.

The Space Shuttle external tank foam insulation -- the same insulation that fell off during Columbia's final liftoff and was ultimately implicated in the shuttle's demise- has, ironically, played a roll in a very interesting medical spinoff. Fab/Cam, a subsidiary of Harshberger Prosthetic & Orthotic Center, Inc., produces artificial limbs using computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) techniques. The company was interested in replacing the plaster and corn starch materials that were traditionally used to produce molds for their prosthetic devices.

These molds were heavy, fragile, and could not be repaired if damaged. Fab/Cam worked with MSFC and Martin Marietta Space Systems (now Lockheed Martin Company) to adapt the commercial foam insulation system used on the Shuttle's external tank as a disposable mold for their devices. Fab/Cam owner Jerald Harshberger noted that "these foam [molds] provided us with an alternative substitute in replacing plaster [molds].

NASA foam is lighter, less expensive and faster to manufacture, which financially helps our company and our patients. We are also able to mass produce the foam [molds] and distribute them to other prosthetists across the nation." (from TechFinder database.) Thus, NASA's tragedy itself has, in a way, spun-off to benefit many disabled people on earth.

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