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Science - Technology

Technology from NASA space program continues to touch everyday life
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


July 20, 2009

You don't have to look to the stars to see how America's space program has touched your daily life. Look at your cell phone, your tennis shoes, your tool belt, your computer or television.

Daniel Lockney, editor of Spinoff, a NASA publication since 1976, makes it his job to inform readers of the benefits of space technology, from medicine to industry to entertainment.

"When NASA was founded in 1958," Lockney said, "Congress said, 'You can have this money for space exploration, but the money that goes up in space has to come back down in some practical and tangible forms. And we'd like to know what they are.'

"One of the goals of space exploration is to discover these new inventions and new technologies."

He also spends much of his time policing information, dispelling myths ranging from scissors and smoke detectors to Velcro and Tang, the preferred orange soft drink of man's early space missions.

"People were drinking Tang before we went into space," he said.

But much of what has been technologically achieved since the start of the space program -- such as computers and the miniaturization of electronics -- can be credited, at least partially, to that reach for the moon.

"The first integrated circuit -- the forefather of the modern microchip -- was built by Texas Instruments but funded by the Apollo program and the Air Force's Minuteman Missile Project," Lockney said. "They developed it, but the customer was NASA.

"A lot of the work is contracted out. NASA retains the usage rights, and the company retains the intellectual property rights and (is) able to create a commercial item. That's for the greater good of the economy. Everybody benefits."

The Dustbuster is a prime example, he said. Other things, such as the small, lightweight, rechargeable, battery-operated power tools so common today? Maybe not so much.

"Black and Decker had offered (the public) a cordless drill two years before NASA," Lockney said. "But NASA did work with Black and Decker, and the collaboration did lead to a stronger, longer-lasting battery."

How about those thermometers that are inserted in your ear nowadays and take your temperature in seconds? The technology was initiated by scientists who wanted to measure radiation from stars and planets. And doesn't the bottom of your tongue appreciate it.

Have you been watching ESPN's "SportsCenter" lately? You see those panoramic views it has of plays from all angles? That is based on robotic gigapan camera technology software used to create images of the Mars landscape from digital photos taken by space probes.

"That's really cool, and it's out of Carnegie Mellon University," Lockney said. "The robotic arms of the Mars rovers, and the software that stitches all these digital images together. These are now the 360-degree panoramic features used on Web sites for new cars, real estate and hotels, where you can take a virtual tour."

You probably know about "the space-age technology" used to develop scratchproof lenses, composite golf clubs, high-density batteries, blue-blocking ultraviolet sunglasses, the computer mouse and freeze-dried food.

But how about infant formula?

"In the 1980s, (researchers were) working to use algae to clean water and recycle air and perhaps use as a food source during long-duration space flights," Lockney said. "During the experiments, they discovered a unique nutrient that previously had been found only in breast milk. Today, that nutrient is marketed in 95 percent of all baby formula sold in the U.S. and countries around the world."

Why, space research is part of the fabric of society, including the design and material for certain types of sportswear, ranging from the sports bras to temperature-control clothing to the swimsuits worn by every gold-medal winner in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Lockney said NASA is constantly collaborating with private companies to share its resources. For example, the space agency builds a wind tunnel, but then allows NASCAR to use it for testing, or loans a zero-gravity aircraft to filmmakers.


Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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