Covering the Cutting Edge: 25 Years of NASA Tech Briefs
Since 1976, NASA Tech Briefs has been bringing its growing readership of engineering professionals cutting-edge technologies developed by NASA and commercial industry. In those 25 years, the magazine has covered thousands of technologies and products that have become part of our daily lives. This timeline provides only a sample of the important innovations NASA Tech Briefs has covered during the past 25 years.


    Fall 1978
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.

1978
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.

Winter 1979
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.

1979
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 horn.

1982
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 injuries.

1983
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.

Summer 1985
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.

Fall 1985
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 atmosphere.

February 1987
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.

March 1987
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 efficiency.

October 1987
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 abuse.

October 1987
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.

October 1987
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.

November 1989
"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.

September 1993
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.

January 1994
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 equipment.

March 1994
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 conspicuous.

April 1994
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.

May 1994
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.

August 1994
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.

September 1994
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.

September 1994
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.

1995
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 and distance.

February 1995
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 product today.

May 1995
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.

June 1995
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.

June 1995
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.

August 1995
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.

October 1995
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.

October 1995
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.

November 1995
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.

December 1995
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.

February 1996
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.

February 1996
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

August 1996
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°.

November 1996
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.

February 1997
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.

October 1997
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.

May 1999
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 available commercially.

July 1999
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.

May 2000
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 panels.

June 2000
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.

November 2000
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.

September 2001
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 Johnson bioreactor.


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