x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Night vision and laser surgery trace their roots to shuttle

The Top 10 benefits of Nasa's space shuttle programme include tracking humpback whale migration, laser eye surgery and lubricants for fishing rods.

Some of the benefits of Nasa's technology utilisation programme have been surprising - and very down to earth.

In 1962, the agency's Langley Research Center in Virginia was tasked with tackling the problem of aquaplaning, a major hazard when test aircraft landed on runways in wet weather. The solution it came up with - grooved surfaces - also proved an invaluable safety innovation for roads.

"As a testament to the TUP's work," Nasa's Spinoff report noted in 2002, "every state in the nation today has miles of grooved pavement to enhance the safety of its roadways during wet weather [and] grooves on potentially slippery surfaces also benefit pedestrian areas, industrial factories, pools, and playgrounds."

In fact, Nasa concluded, grooved surfaces may affect people more than any other Nasa spin-off application to date.

Other successes can be measured in terms of dollar payback.

With weight at a premium in all space missions, the development of lightweight materials has had many commercial spin-offs.

One is the high-temperature polymer RP-46, originally created for use as a resin capable of withstanding extreme levels of heat and cold in space, over a range between -101ºC and 815ºC. It has subsequently found many other earthbound applications, from military weapons and commercial aircraft technology to components used in oil-drilling and lightweight brake and exhaust systems for cars.

Nasa can even point to exactly how much it has made by licensing some technologies; another high-temperature, flexible adhesive developed at Langley found a second life as a vital component of high-speed computer disc drives, a technology transfer that will have earned Nasa in excess of US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) by the time the patent expires.

Of all Nasa's programmes, including Apollo, it is the shuttle that has proved the most productive in terms of "technology transfer", producing 120 of the agency's total of 1,650 spin-offs. Here are just 10 of them:

The MicroMed DeBakey VAD miniature heart pump, developed in the 1990s in conjunction with Nasa and based on shuttle fuel-pump technology.

The Ladar Tracker eye-tracking device used as part of the Ladar Vision 4000 system for Lasik eye surgery, based on shuttle automatic-docking technology.

The cab design of almost all "big rig" trucks on the roads of the US today bear the hallmarks of fuel-saving aerodynamics research carried out in the 1970s by Nasa's Dryden flight research centre as part of the shuttle design programme.

X-1R Crawler Track Lube, a biodegradable high-performance lubricant for the wheels of the massive shuttle-bearing launch platform, developed for Nasa and Lockheed Martin Space Operations in 1994 by Sun Coast Chemical of Daytona, has since been incorporated into many products, including automotive, gun and fishing-rod lubricants.

Video Image Stabilisation and Registration (Visar) technology developed by Nasa to stabilise the shaky close-up images of shuttle launches was adapted to help the FBI analyse footage of the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Since then it has been used extensively by police forces, the military and the intelligence community; it once helped to prove that Saddam Hussein had survived a US air strike, which had instead killed a body double.

Handheld Qwips - Quantum Well Infrared Photo Detectors - developed by Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Raytheon to analyse blast-off plumes from the shuttle, now have many uses, including night-vision and security applications and the detection of hotspots in forest fires.

Leftover shuttle rocket fuel, donated by Nasa, is an essential ingredient in a flare device used to disable landmines.

"Intelligent" software developed for Nasa to allow onboard engine-management computers to do their own rapid "thinking" to come up with instant solutions in the face of technological problems through a process of human-like reasoning - first used to manage Discovery's engines and Reaction Control System in 1997 - was adapted by the dating website WeAttract.com to better match its clients.

Software developed by Nasa to analyse heat-shield tiles on the shuttle was adapted by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory to identify individual humpback whales, allowing improved tracking of migration patterns.

The Vericode Symbol, an advanced version of the traditional barcode, was developed by Nasa's Marshall Space Center and Veritec to identify and track shuttle parts, and is now part of Veritec's commercial VeriSystem.