The material was developed in the 1970s as a new fabric for astronauts'
spacesuits. It's Fiberglas® fabric from Owens-Corning Fiberglas coated
with Teflon® fluorocarbon resin from DuPont. Today, it's used to provide
a roof for the Pontiac Silverdome sports stadium, and as a permanent roofing
material for buildings and stadiums worldwide.
In the early 1970s, NASA's Ames Research Center tried to improve crash
protection for airplane passengers. One of the resulting innovations was
an open-cell polymeric "slow springback foam" that flowed to
match the contour of the body pressing against it, and then returned to
its original shape once the pressure was removed. Initially marketed as
Temper Foam®, it has become one of the most widely used commercial
spinoffs of NASA technology. Fagerdala World Foams of Sweden perfected
the invention into Tempur® material, which was used to make a pressure-relieving
foam mattress called the Tempur-Pedic Swedish Mattress, introduced in
1991, which has sold millions.
A Lewis Research Center development called ferrofluids is licensed to
Ferrofluidics Corp., which grew to be a multimillion-dollar company in
its first ten years, making it one of the most successful NASA spinoffs
in history. Ferrofluids are magnetic fluids in which tiny particles of
iron, nickel, cobalt, or their alloys are suspended. The material can
be controlled by magnetic force, making them suitable for applications
in semiconductor manufacturing, disk drive seals, coolant for loudspeakers,
medical equipment, visual displays, automated machine tools, and as magnetic
seals in motors and other machinery.
Marketed commercially by Honeywell Consumer Products, Minneapolis, MN,
a smoke detector incorporated technology developed by Honeywell for a
sophisticated smoke and fire detection system used in NASA's Skylab, a
long-duration orbital laboratory which was active in the mid-1970s. The
Honeywell AC/Battery Backup Smoke and Fire Detector normally operated
on home electrical currents, but also had a continuously self-recharging
nickel-cadmium battery that automatically took over if home power failed.
An ionization chamber sensed incipient combustion and actuated an alarm
Astronauts working on the surface of the Moon wore liquid-cooled garments
under their space suits to protect them from lunar temperatures that often
reached 250°F. Developed by NASA's Ames Research Center, the technology
is one of the most widely used spin-offs in NASA history. The technology
has been adapted to portable cooling systems for treatment of medical
ailments such as burning limb syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and spinal
The Shuttle Portable Onboard Computer (SPOC) made its debut on a nine-day
Space Shuttle mission. In the early 1980s, space shuttle needs drove production
of the first portable computer, which had the operating and control systems
necessary for navigation functions. It also had to have better graphic
display, greater memory storage, higher processing speed, and more ruggedness
than existing experimental models. NASA engineers worked with GriD Systems,
a California manufacturer, to develop new technologies and hardware.
In 1986, the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty was marked with a
complete refurbishment of the statue to repair a century's worth of wear
and tear. A protective coating called IC 531 was used to proivde corrosion
protection for the interior of the statue. The coating originated with
research on corrosion resistant materials conducted by NASA's Goddard
Space Flight Center.
Laser angioplasty has been used as an alternative in many cases to balloon
angioplasty to deal with coronary artery blockage. Advanced Interventional
Systems of Irvine, CA, developed a system called the Dymer 200+, a laser
angioplasty system that uses a "cool" excimer laser that won't
damage blood vessel walls. The system is based on technology developed
by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) for measuring gases in the Earth's
In 1986, Tylenol capsules were removed from store shelves because of cyanide
poisoning. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needed to find the cyanide-laced
capsules quickly, without having to subject each capsule to chemical analysis.
The screening device they used was the Lixiscope, developed at Goddard
Space Flight Center. It showed the tampered capsules as black images against
a green background. A license was granted in 1982 to Lixi, Inc. to manufacture
the x-ray imaging device, which has been used to determine the condition
of injured athletes on the field at the Olympics and the Super Bowl, check
PC boards, and scan the contents of mailed packages.
NASA's aeronautical research program has spun off many technologies, one
of which is the winglet, an upturned wing tip that is seen on all types
of commercial airliners today. Originally developed at NASA's Langley
Research Center, it has been in service since the 1970s. A vertical extension
of the wing, the winglet is a lifting surface that produces a degree of
forward thrust, much like a boat sail. It also results in greater fuel
Goddard Space Flight Center's tech brief on an implantable, ingestible
electronic thermometer describes a small quartz-crystal-controlled oscillator
that would be swallowed to provide continuous monitoring of a patient's
internal temperature. In the early 1990s, the device was marketed for
medical use by Human Technologies as the CorTemp System. The device is
used in research and treatment of sleep disorders, sports medicine and
physiology, tumor treatment, basal temperature analysis, and substance
An early report in NTB discusses the evolving project known as the Space
Station. As that issue went to press, contractors were still vying for
the four major work packages comprising the design and development of
what is now the International Space Station (ISS). In July 1998, NTB featured
a special section on the technologies and commercial products used in
the development and deployment of the ISS, the largest cooperative international
space project in history.
The C Language Integrated Production System (CLIPS) from Johnson Space
Center enables research, development, and delivery of artificial intelligence
on conventional computers. The rule-based language, developed a year earlier,
is featured again in NTB in November 1987 as the basis for a new computer-based
expert system called Airline Operations AI, which evaluates current and
past weather, runway length, aircraft weight, and other conditions to
provide "intelligent" recommendations for pilots.
"New on the Market" in NTB is the Portfolio from Atari
Computer, the first "palmtop" personal compute. The one-pound
PC is slightly smaller than a VHS videotape, and is MS-DOS-compatible.
It includes a built-in Lotus 1-2-3® file-compatible spreadsheet, word
processing software, a calculator, an appointment book program, and a
phone/address directory, as well as typewriter-style keyboard.
Researchers at Lewis Research Center (now Glenn Research Center) found
that silicon carbide (SiC) has properties that should make it a superior
semiconductor for applications that involve high temperature, high power,
high radiation, and/or high frequency. Large, single-crystal boules from
which wafers of large area can be cut are produced commercially. The Lewis
team developed a chemical vapor deposition (CVD) process to produce thin
single-crystal SiC films on SiC wafers, an essential step in the sequence
used to fabricate semiconductor devices.
Computer Motion of Santa Barbara, CA, developed a mechanical arm that
enables surgeons performing laparoscopic surgery to operate three instruments
simultaneously. The new robot, AESOP (Automated Endoscopic System for
Optimal Positioning), holds the laparoscope and moves it in response to
a controller operated by the surgeon. In August of 2001, the first complete
robotic surgical operation was performed. A team of doctors in New York
removed the gallbladder of a woman in France using the Computer Motion
Langley Research Center developed a video camera that pans, tilts, and
zooms, providing rotations of images of objects in its field of view,
all without moving parts. The camera's lens is a fisheye lens, which yields
a circular image of a hemispherical field of view. The cameras became
popular as surveillance cameras in areas where camera movement would be
The 1994 NASA Invention of the Year was awarded to the Regenerable Biocide
Delivery Unit developed by three engineers at Johnson Space Center. The
system passes water through an anion exchange bed that has been treated
with iodine. The resin bed is regenerated in situ using small amounts
of elemental iodine, significantly extending its life. The system was
designed to serve as an emergency backup system during floods, droughts,
power shortages, and other natural disasters.
The first in a series of tech briefs from Marshall Space Flight Center
describes an automatically locking/unlocking orthotic knee joint. The
original device locked and unlocked automatically, at any position within
a range of bend angles, without manual intervention by the wearer. Revised
versions of the joint were featured in May 1995 and December 1995. The
technology was licensed in 1998 to Horton's Orthotic Lab to manufacture
the Selectively Lockable Knee Brace to provide freedom of movement to
patients suffering from lower extremity weakness due to stroke or accident.
Intended to solve complex computational fluid dynamics (CFD), the Numerical
Aerodynamic Simulation (NAS) Program was started by a group of aeronautical
engineers at NASA. Software developed by SGI of Mountain View, CA, and
NASA, and running on SGI machines, enabled engineers to turn massive data
sets into active 3D images. The 3D capabilities rendered through the NAS
program conveyed images in which objects looked, moved, and behaved like
objects in the real world. Subsequent procurements and the close interchange
of ideas accelerated the development of SGI's products and propelled the
company to market a wide range of visual computing systems.
A new way of cleaning up oil spills by "bioremediation" was
invented by Joseph A. Resnick, chief scientist at Petrol Rem in Pittsburgh,
PA. The Petroleum Remediation Product, or PRP, incorporates technology
reported in NTB related to fabrication of beeswax microcapsules developed
by Marshall Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Petrol
Rem developed the Bio-Boom to be used in conjunction with PRP for
oil spill cleanup. The boom is an oil containment system with a floatation
device that keeps it on top of the water.
Charles Kaman, an aerospace engineer, began producing his own helicopters
after leaving his job with a helicopter manufacturer. He also was a professional-caliber
guitarist, and believed that aerospace technology offered ways of improving
the sound quality of acoustic guitars. Finding a connection between the
vibration of helicopters and that of guitars, Kaman and his engineers
used special vibration analysis equipment patterned on aerospace technology.
After two years of vibration analysis, a bowl-like guitar that Kaman considered
the ideal shape for full, rich, and constant tone was produced. Ovation
Instruments was formed as a subsidiary company; eventually, Kaman Corp.,
as it became known, expanded into a Fortune 500 company.
The Ultra® 500 Series golf ball from Wilson Sporting Goods has 500
dimples arranged in a pattern of 60 spherical triangles, a design that
incorporates NASA aerodynamics technology. A design engineer formerly
associated with NASA programs researched and testing dimple patterns,
and the result was a ball with 60 triangular faces, compared with the
usual 20. The result is a ball with a symmetrical surface that sustains
initial velocity longer, and produces stable ball flight for accuracy
Research Systems of Boulder, CO - a Kodak company - develops software
for analysis and visualization of scientific data. The company's IDL®
(Interactive Data Language) is used for mathematical analysis and graphical
display in physics, remote sensing, test and measurement, and medical
imaging. IDL's origin dates back to a software predecessor developed for
NASA's Mars flyby spacecraft in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The commercial
version of IDL was introduced in 1982, and is still a successful commercial
A tech brief describes the Propulsion Controlled Aircraft (PCA) system,
a computer-controlled engine thrust system developed by Dryden Flight
Research Center that provides landing capability when flight controls
become inoperable. In 1996, the Engines-Only Flight Control System was
NASA's nominee for the National Inventor of the Year Award. The system
could save thousands of lives by enabling a pilot to not only perform
a survivable crash-landing, but to perform a normal landing without the
use of standard flight controls.
A hybrid power system uses flywheel technology to power a Chrysler open-cockpit
race car called the Patriot Mark II. The hybrid car replaced the standard
lead-acid battery with a carbon-composite flywheel energy storage system
that converts latent electric energy to rotational energy. Chrysler worked
with Marshall Space Flight Center on the use of space shuttle-based insulation
materials for use in the Patriot's fuel system.
The Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) is used to supplement the heart's
pumping capacity in the left ventricle. David Saucier of NASA's Johnson
Space Center teamed with Dr. Michael DeBakey of the Baylor College of
Medicine to develop the device with tools and techniques used by NASA
in spacecraft propulsion system component design. The device can maintain
the heart in a stable condition in patients requiring a transplant until
a donor is found, which can range from one month to one year. In some
cases, the need for a transplant may be negated by permanent implantation
of the LVAD.
Following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma
City, Lifeshear, a pyrotechnic-based cutting tool, was used to cut through
debris, including concrete, piping, electrical conduit, and reinforced
bar. The tool was developed through a NASA program in conjunction with
the manufacturer - Hi-Shear Technology Corp. - and the city of Torrance,
CA. The unit operates on NASA-developed pyrotechnics called initiators.
Originally designed to sever automotive brake and clutch pedals, use of
Lifeshear at the Oklahoma City site drew the attention of Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) officials, who ordered 36 cutters. Today, the
cutters are used by Urban Search and Rescue groups across America.
The first Active Pixel Sensor (APS), developed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
features the ability to store all of the components necessary to produce
an image on a single computer chip. The camera-on-a-chip technology enabled
the development of small imaging systems. The innovation was quickly commercialized
with applications in PC visual communications, advanced television, electronic
still cameras, laboratory-based cameras, medical and nuclear instruments,
toys, automobiles, and space-based surveillance systems.
Robert Bryant of Langley Research Center developed a patented thermoplastic
called LaRC SI (soluble imide) that can be used in most manufacturing
processes. It's a moldable, soluble, strong, crack-resistant polymer that
can survive at high temperatures and pressures. Originally designed for
high-speed civilian aircraft, it promises to be useful in manufacturing.
It can bond to itself and is soluble only once, making it ideal for applications
such as multilayer flexible circuits. It is unlikely to burn, and is resistant
to hydrocarbons, lubricants, antifreeze, hydraulic fluid, and detergents.
A new method of fabricating flexible printed circuits used LaRC SI to
eliminate the use of adhesives and pressure bonding.
The opening of the new Denver International Airport in February 1995 marked
the first major commercial use of an air-traffic control system developed
by Ames Research Center in the late 1980s. The Center TRACON (Terminal
Radar CONtrol) Automation System (CTAS) is a software-based technology
designed to manage and control arrival traffic at multi-runway hub airports
by automating the process. CTAS was awarded the 1998 NASA Software of
the Year, and is in use at major airports such as Dallas/Ft. Worth. Estimates
indicate that it could save airports as much as $800 million per year.
Intel introduced the Pentium Pro, a 150-MHz processor that achieved
twice the performance of the original Pentium in 32-bit high-end visual
computing applications, including CAD and 3D animation. The dual-cavity
construction allowed additional CPUs or high-speed I/O channels to be
connected to the processor's bus with no loss in system performance.
The first annual NASA Tech Briefs Readers' Choice Product of the Year
is awarded to co-winners SolidWorks - for SolidWorks 95, the first release
of its mechanical design software - and Autodesk for its Mechanical Library
CD-ROM. The 2001 Product of the Year will mark the seventh consecutive
year that the award has been presented to the most innovative new product
released to the engineering community during the year.
The LORAD Stereo Guide Breast Biopsy System from LORAD Corp. incorporates
charge-coupled devices (CCDs) based on those developed at Goddard Space
Flight Center for the Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph. The
CCDs, marketed by Scientific Imaging Technologies (SITe), are part of
a digital camera system that "sees" a breast structure with
x-ray vision. SITe applied the technology to manufacture CCDs for the
digital mammography market. The resulting device images breast tissue
more clearly than convention x-ray film technology. The LORAD system allows
a radiologist to extract a tiny sample with a needle. The new technique,
which is replacing surgical biopsy, is saving women time, pain, scarring,
radiation exposure, and money
Stock car driving can be a hot job - literally. Temperatures inside a
race car's cockpit can soar to 160°. Boeing North America (formerly
Rockwell Space Systems) and BSR Products, under a Space Act Agreement,
are using space shuttle Thermal Protection System (TPS) material to insulate
the race cars. BSR Products manufactures insulation kits for race car
teams around the world at a cost of $1,300 apiece. The insulation is used
under the driver's seat, between the floorpan and the exhaust system on
the driver's side, under the driver's feet, and for insulating the oil
tank, the ignition system, and the side of the transmission tunnel, resulting
in temperature reductions of up to 90°.
The concept of microencapsulation of drugs is reported by Johnson Space
Center. The technology involves drugs stored in inactive forms in time-released
microcapsules that are injected, and the drugs then are activated by exposing
the target sites to suitable forms of penetrating energy that may include
electromagnetic radiation, ultrasound, or heat. The drugs then diffuse
out of the microcapsules. The technology holds potential for cancer tumor
treatment and other medical applications.
In an optical fiber system, before a connector can be attached to the
terminated fiber, a certain portion of the coating must be removed or
stripped from the glass fiber. Two scientists at Goddard Space Flight
Center designed an optical fiber cable chemical stripping fixture that
won NASA's Government Invention of the Year for 2000. The process was
successfully used on a number of spacecraft, and the Hubble Space Telescope's
Solid State Recorder. Cables treated by the process are being used by
both Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as on the International Space
Station and in other harsh-environment applications.
NASA's 1997 Software of the Year was awarded to a Jet Propulsion Laboratory
program called DARTS (Dynamics Algorithms for Real-Time Simulations),
a multibody dynamics simulator used for real-time testing of spacecraft
flight software. DARTS was used to keep the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft
on course during its historic journey to the Red Planet in 1997.
The NASA Invention of the Year for 1998 was PETI-5, or Phenylethynyl Terminated
Imide Oligomers fifth composition, designed as both a glue that holds
fibers together and an adhesive with a variety of applications. Developed
at Langley Research Center, PETI-5 cures into a tough, heat-resistant
plastic that is non-toxic. The material was licensed to at least four
different suppliers. Matrix prepregs, film adhesives, paste adhesives,
core splice materials, and self-filleting films based on PETI-5 all are
FutureFlight Central, the world's first full-scale virtual reality air
traffic control tower, is installed at Ames Research Center. Using data
sources such as satellite imagery, digitized photographs, and architectural
data, the system can render any airport in the world in realistic, 360-degree,
high-resolution virtual reality through the tower's 12 tempered-glass
windows. Computer-generated images simulated weather conditions, seasons,
time of day, and the movement of up to 200 aircraft and ground vehicles.
In 2000, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) selected FutureFlight
Central to evaluate new tower positions, runway configurations, and aircraft
movements before beginning new construction.
NASA's 1999 Invention of the Year was awarded to a team from Langley Research
Center for its development of polyimides that exhibit remarkable qualities
in transparency, ultraviolet resistance, and operating temperatures. Called
LARC-CP1 and LARC-CP2, the materials were licensed to SRS
Technologies and Triton Systems, and are being used to manufacture solar
sails, large antennae, solar thermal propulsion systems, and flat film
Scientists at Pennzoil-Quaker State began basic research on a family of
synthetic lubricants in the mid-1980s that resulted in Pennzoil Synthetic
with Pennzane, a commercial synthetic motor oil. The basis of the product
is Pennzane X2000 synthesized hydrocarbon fluid, the result of a decade-long
research and development project to produce synthetic lubricants that
meet space conditions. Its original commercial use was in 1987 when Pennzane
was shipped to NASA contractor TRW, which began using it for equipment
deployed in outer space.
Internet-Based Global Differential GPS (IGDG) was developed at Jet Propulsion
Laboratory and won its inventors the 2000 NASA Software of the Year award.
The C-language package provides an end-to-end system capability for GPS-based
real-time positioning and orbit determination. The software is being used
to operate and control real-time GPS data streaming from NASA's Global
GPS Network, which consists of about 60 sites. The Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA) adopted its use into the Wide Area Augmentation System program that
provides pilots in U.S. airspace with meter-level accurate knowledge of
their positions in real-time.
The development in 1986 of a bioreactor for growing cell cultures led
to commercialization of a bioreactor-based system for manufacturing recombinant
human protein drugs. The bioreactor is a cell-culturing apparatus with
a rotating cylinder developed at Johnson Space Center during research
to simulate the way cell cultures grow in weightlessness. The system's
rotation and shape produce high-density cell cultures that would not otherwise
grow in the body. Synthecon of Houston, TX, began producing recombinant
human protein drugs in its Rotary Cell Culture System based on the