Space Shuttle Spinoffs

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Spinoffs from the Space Shuttle Program

Space shuttle docked with ISS
Space Shuttle Endeavor is seen docked with the International Space Station (ISS) in an image taken by European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli from a departing Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Nespoli’s photos are the first of a Space Shuttle docked to the ISS from the perspective of a Soyuz.

Many have called it a workhorse. Astronaut Story Musgrave described it as “a butterfly bolted to a bullet.” The wings of its orbiters displayed the names that have acquired a mythic heft: Columbia, Discovery, Endeavor, Challenger, Atlantis. A marvel of engineering, drawing on the best of NASA’s talent and many partners within the aerospace industry, it carried more passengers into space than any other vehicle by far. Though only operating within low-Earth orbit, it enabled many of the most remarkable achievements in space exploration since the Apollo astronauts set foot on the Moon.

Space shuttle rises from a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, M2-F3 aircraft, STS-1 crewmembers, STS-1 launch
The Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise rises from NASA’s 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to begin a powerless glide flight back to Dryden Flight Research Center. The Enterprise test flights verified the aerodynamic and control characteristics of the orbiters in preparation for the first space mission with the orbiter Columbia. Inset images (left to right): The M2-F3 aircraft, part of NASA’s lifting body program, contributed to the database that led to the development of the Space Shuttle Program; STS-1 crew members John Young and Robert Crippen; the launch of STS-1 in April 1981.

Over the course of 30 years, the Space Transportation System (STS), better known as the Space Shuttle, became the icon of American space exploration and flew frequently—135 missions total. With the official retirement of the shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA is moving ahead along a new path of innovation, driven by game-changing and crosscutting space technology programs that will both build on the technological feats of the Space Shuttle Program and give rise to entirely new ideas and capabilities. The influence of NASA’s Space Shuttle extends far beyond the Agency, however, and the benefits for the Nation and world will endure well after the final mission.

Following the historic success of the Apollo program—perhaps the greatest achievement in human exploration so far—was a tough task. But the shuttle program was no encore; it was an entirely new show. The launch of the STS-1 on April 12, 1981 marked the first flight of a human-rated, winged, reusable spacecraft, a vehicle designed not to carry astronauts further into space, but to carry them there more frequently, to establish a constant human presence beyond Earth’s atmosphere. In low-Earth orbit lay the opportunity to learn how to live in space and thus enable the next steps of human expansion into the solar system, as well as the promise of scientific advancements only possible in microgravity.

On both these counts and many more, the Space Shuttle delivered. That the United States now has a National Laboratory in orbit—the International Space Station—can be attributed to the shuttle, as it ferried the station piece by piece into space, in the process becoming a vehicle of international cooperation. Discovery carried the Hubble Space Telescope aloft during STS-31 in 1990, allowing scientists to peer deep into the origins of our universe and inspiring awe in the public with astonishing images of cosmic phenomena. The shuttle program was very much one of firsts, among them the first woman in space (Sally Ride), the first African American (Guion Bluford, Jr.), the first African American woman (Mae Jemison), and the first senior citizen (77-year-old John Glenn). Its payload bay hosted the Chandra X-ray Observatory, interplanetary spacecraft such as Galileo and Ulysses, and numerous satellites, while its crews served as caretakers for hundreds of scientific experiments. Between these milestones of achievement were also two of the Space Program’s darkest hours: the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Though the disasters threatened to permanently ground the fleet, in each case the Space Shuttle returned to flight, a testament to the human drive to explore and to the memory of the 14 astronauts who lost their lives.

Throughout its history—whether by enabling stunning accomplishments or in response to heartbreaking tragedies—the Space Shuttle Program has proven a fertile source for innovations that have moved beyond NASA and into the public sphere. Through fruitful partnerships, the Agency has transferred multiple technologies with origins in the program—over 120 and counting—for the benefit of the Nation. Though the Space Shuttle era has ended, the spinoffs from the program will continue to save lives, support jobs, conserve energy, enhance national security, and more, for years to come. On the following pages are just a few examples of that legacy of benefits.

Diagram of the ventricular assist device

Keeping Failing Hearts Pumping

David Saucier, a Johnson Space Center engineer, received a heart transplant following a severe heart attack. Working with Houston-based MicroMed Technology Inc. and the doctors who saved his life, including George Noon and the late, renowned heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, Saucier and his Johnson colleagues developed a low cost, low power, implantable heart pump. Based in part on Space Shuttle fuel pump technology, the MicroMed HeartAssist 5 ventricular assist device (VAD) functions as a “bridge to heart transplant,” pumping blood to keep critically ill patients alive until a donor heart is available. The NASA-derived VAD’s small size makes it ideal for small adults and children, renders it less invasive, and minimizes device-related infections. More than 450 lives have been saved thanks to this technology.

Video comparison using video stabilization technology

Providing an Innovative Solution to Video Enhancement

Vibrating with the force of the world’s most powerful rocket engines and blasting skyward at thousands of miles per hour, the Space Shuttle does not present an easy subject for video. Using techniques and technologies developed for stabilizing the shaky shuttle launch video, Marshall Space Flight Center scientists created Video Image Stabilization and Registration (VISAR) to help FBI agents analyze video footage of the deadly bombing at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta. Intergraph Government Solutions of Huntsville, Alabama, licensed the technology and adapted it for the company’s Video Analyst System now used for military and law enforcement applications, including the capture of kidnappers and the identification of Saddam Hussein in footage sent back from Iraq.


Construction worker taking measurements

Calculating Measurements from Photographs

Even through tragic moments that threatened to permanently ground the fleet, the Space Shuttle Program yielded remarkable innovations. As part of the investigation following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, a Kennedy Space Center scientist developed a program to calculate the dimensions of objects in photographs. In 2008, DigiContractor Corporation of Tarzana, California, licensed the technology and incorporated it into online technology that can calculate measurements from photos for applications from construction and remodeling to landscaping to crime scenes and auto accidents. (Read More)


Insulated shoe insoles

Insulating Against Extreme Temperatures

The Space Shuttle requires more than a half million gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel, which must remain at about -423 °F and -297 °F respectively. Aspen Aerogels of Northborough, Massachusetts, worked with Kennedy Space Center through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to develop a robust, flexible form of aerogel for cryogenic insulation in Space Shuttle launch applications. As the leading provider of aerogel in the United States, Aspen Aerogels’ technology—which has the lowest thermal conductivity of any known solid—now provides unrivaled insulation for everything from houses to extreme-weather clothing to insoles for footwear.


Eye surgery

Ensuring Safe Vision Correction

Autonomous rendezvous and docking technology to assist the Space Shuttle in servicing satellites resulted in an eye-tracking device for LASIK vision correction surgery. Called LADARTracker, it measures eye movements at a rate of 4,000 times per second, four times the established safety margin, to ensure the safety and effectiveness of LASIK surgery. The technology is manufactured by Alcon Laboratories of Fort Worth, Texas, and is used in conjunction with the company’s systems for LASIK surgery, employed by eye surgeons across the country.


LED light for medical treatment

Shining a Light on Pain Relief

Tiny LED chips used to grow plants on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station are lighting the way for wound healing and chronic pain alleviation on Earth. Developed with Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) support from Marshall Space Flight Center, the LED chips have made their way into a noninvasive, handheld medical device. Intended for the temporary relief of minor muscle and joint pain, arthritis, stiffness, and muscle spasms, the technology has also been shown to help reduce certain side effects of chemotherapy.


Compact gasifer

Advancing Clean Energy Technology

Proven to be the most efficient rocket engine of its time, the Space Shuttle main engine (SSME) was developed in the 1970s under contract to NASA by Rocketdyne, now part of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR), based in East Hartford, Connecticut. After engineering the unprecedented SSME, PWR used its rocket engine expertise to make clean energy gasification technology with 10–20 percent lower capital costs and a 10-percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared to conventional gasification plants. Each system deployed is equivalent to removing 50,000 cars from the road. (Read More)


Space shuttle on a crawler

Protecting Machines and the Environment

Since beginning operation in 1965, NASA’s two massive tank-treaded crawlers, “Hans” and “Franz,” have cumulatively traveled more than 3,400 miles while transporting the Space Shuttle between Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch complex about 3.4 miles away. In 1994, NASA and Lockheed Martin Space Operations commissioned Sun Coast Chemicals of Daytona Inc. (now known as The X-1R Corporation) to develop a new type of lubricant that would be safe for the environment and help “grease the wheels” for the crawlers. The company produced the biodegradable, high-performance X-1R Crawler Track Lube and introduced a range of commercial lubricant products—for everything from motorsports to fishing tackle—based on the original NASA-sponsored innovation.


Washing vegetables

Washing Away Disease-Causing Germs

For astronauts miles away from the nearest doctor, food-borne illness is a serious concern. Johnson Space Center partnered with Microcide Inc. of Detroit to develop a safe and nontoxic biodegradable solution to disinfect fresh fruits and vegetables for Space Shuttle crews. The company perfected a food-grade, soluble version of the technology and commercialized it as an environmentally friendly, easy-to-use sanitizer on Earth. The PRO-SAN product kills 99.999 percent of bacteria on contact, leaves no residue, and does not impact the food’s nutrient content.


Aerodynamic truck

Taking Shuttle Aerodynamics on the Road

During the 1970s, researchers at Dryden Flight Research Center used expertise gained from designing the Space Shuttle to alter the shape of large vehicles like trucks—rounding corners and edges and adding fixtures known as “fairings” to improve aerodynamic efficiency, which led to marked improvement in gas mileage. Virtually all tractor-trailer big rigs and recreational vehicles on the highway today bear physical evidence of the project.



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