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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