Assessing the space shuttle program's tech legacy

After the space shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth on July 20, the space shuttle program will be no more. The Atlantis's flight, begun July 8, is the last one for the aging shuttle fleet.

In a way, though, it won't be the end. The shuttle program led to the development of technologies that we'll use for decades to come.

From its inception in 1958, NASA has developed or contracted for technology that eventually turned up in people’s homes and cars ... better water filters, freeze-dried food, wireless devices and Dustbusters. (But not Tang, as an entire generation of Americans grew up believing. It turns out that Tang was around before astronauts started drinking it in space. Teflon and Velcro are other tecynologies commonly, but mistakenly, attributed to the space program.)

In fact, NASA puts out an annual publication, Spinoff, devoted to its commercialized technology, which has continued through the shuttle program’s 30 years.

So as Atlantis orbits the globe on the final shuttle flight, we pay tribute to just a few of the technologies that have grown out of the program.

Artificial heart. NASA didn’t invent the artificial heart, of course, but the technology used in space shuttle fuel pumps led to the development of a miniaturized ventricular assist pump by NASA and renowned heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey. The pump is 2 inches long by 1 inch in diameter and weighs less than 4 ounces. It is undergoing European clinical trials where it has been successfully implanted into more than 20 people.

Running cool. Materials from the shuttle’s thermal protection system are used on NASCAR racing cars to protect drivers from the extreme heat generated by the engines.

Cancer treatment. Experiments with growing plants in space led to the development of a lighting technology, using light-emitting diodes, that is now being tested as a way to treat brain tumors in children. The method, called photodynamic therapy, is being studied at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

Balance evaluation systems. Astronauts returning from space tend to be a bit wobbly at first, so NASA built devices to measure their equilibrium that are now used to diagnose and treat patients suffering head injury, stroke, chronic dizziness or central nervous system disorders.

Liquid metal. It might not be the shape-shifting stuff in “Terminator 2,” but efforts to develop strong, light, synthetic material for shuttle flights led to the development of “liquid metal,” an alloy more than twice as strong as titanium. It’s used in metal baseball bats, jewelry, military armor and medical instruments.

Safer jewelers. The heat shields used on the shuttle give jewelers a safer soldering base than the old-style blocks that contained asbestos fibers.

Land mine removal. The high-octane fuel left over from shuttle flights is used disable land mines. The fuel is put into a flare device, placed next to a mine and ignited via a remote-controlled match. The fuel burns away the mine’s explosives, rendering it harmless.

Better prosthetics. The light, strong, foam insulation used on the shuttle's external tank has replaced the plaster used in master molds for prosthetics.

Video stabilization software. The image processing NASA uses to evaluate and analyze shuttle launch videos and meteorological images is used by law enforcement to enhance grainy videos in search of clues or information such as a license plate number. It also can be used for medical imaging or other scientific applications.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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Reader comments

Wed, Aug 17, 2011 Cleveland

NASA's budget has been $16 - $18 billion per year for a long time, not $32 billion.

Fri, Jul 22, 2011 Jim Washington, DC

I find it ironic that the US government will now subsidize industry and transfer technology to them so they can become capable launch vehicle builders. What will happen when these private companies decide to sell their services tot he highest bidders or take lucrative contracts because it helps the bottom line and not american interest. This will be great for the Iranians and North Korea not to be able to purchase launch services to put their satellites in orbit containing who knows what?

Fri, Jul 15, 2011

I find it interesting that while we speak of shipping balancing the budget we continue to send more jobs overseas. Now we are sending technology and future patents off shore. Folks this is rocket science! These are not itenerant farm workers we speak of. Could it be that this is a pay back to Europe and China? It makes one wonder who the pupet master is...

Wed, Jul 13, 2011 testpilot DC

it costs $32B per YEAR, and YOU didn't pay for it! The shuttle program is a huge failure and did not come close to meeting its intended goals. If space travel had been commercialized, most of us would have taken a ride by now.

Wed, Jul 13, 2011 Stuart San Diego, CA

If you believe in all that the space program did for humanity, then the next step is to make it even better so that future generations will continue to reap even more benefits. This is most worth considering.

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