By Angela M. Gibson, Ed.D.,
Director, First Year Experience at American Public University
NASA is part of everyday life, even in this post-shuttle world NASA brings what would seem to be science fiction to today’s reality– space technology brought down to Earth.
Every day, people benefit from technology developed by NASA as part of the quest for innovation in flight and space travel. Through funding research and partnering with companies, technologies developed for uses in space now are used for practical purposes on Earth. Do you use a memory foam pillow? Do you have a dust buster? Have you ever eaten anything freeze-dried?
Many companies and organizations partner with NASA for spinoff product development. Speedo and NASA created better and faster swimsuits and NASCAR uses NASA technology for specialized radial tires, heat resistant paint, and oil-saving sealing gaskets.
The Future of Human Spaceflight
At a recent NASA open house event, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration William Gerstenmaier and space technologist Mike Gazarik stated that the technology is now good enough for other organizations and companies beyond NASA to get humans and cargo into Earth’s low orbit. The focus of research, innovation, and technological advances at NASA goes beyond the orbit of the space shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). However, there are challenges to expanding the reach of space travel–the same challenges the Vikings had–communication and propulsion.
To propel human spaceflight and technology further out into the solar system it is necessary to find newer and more efficient ways to travel. One technology being explored is solar sail, a slower but abundant form of energy. The research on solar technology as a form of propulsion has applications for weather research here on Earth. Knowledge discovered during development in and testing of solar sails may allow for increased and more accurate warnings of solar flare activities. Space weather has the potential to disrupt communications and electricity based equipment on Earth and an early warning system may prevent disruption to daily life as well as mitigate damage to infrastructure
As we venture further out into the solar system, technologies must advance to support and maintain the work and life of astronauts. NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck and Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate have discussed how these innovations have real life implications on Earth. Currently on the International Space Station, life support systems need maintenance every one to two months. This technology must be improved to work three to four years to support human exploration further than the moon. Discovery of such technologies come from NASA partnerships with universities, small companies, tech companies, and even high school students.
NASACity is an excellent showcase of how equipment, tools, and skills developed specifically for the space station have been successfully applied to improvements in air travel, sports and recreation, the automotive industry, the medical field, and public safety. Plane deicing, better padding for sports safety equipment, rugged school bus chassis, water purification systems, and forest fire imaging are all examples of just a few adaptive technologies.
Our groceries and our own households also positively benefit from the knowhow developed and used on the ISS. Progress in food safety and packaging innovations allows our food to last longer. Wireless headsets permit our hands to be free and our neck to be straighter. Further, though this working laboratory is 240 miles above us, the ISS improves our environment. Innovations from NASA technologies help prevent corrosion to infrastructure such as bridges and created more environmentally sound sewage treatment systems.
Improvements to our health, well-being, and safety are not isolated to technology designed for the ISS. Advances in technology through research and development are happening every day at NASA and with NASA’s partners. Those involved in research are not just rocket scientists, as many industries and professions contribute to the innovations that advance science and exploration.
When asked what can help inspire the next generation of inventors and explorers, Peck states, “Find something you are interested in and never give up!” He adds that, “People work at NASA because they want to create for the future.”
Robotics and Exoskeletons
Exoskeletons and robotics are designed to make the work of humans easier both on Earth and in space. Bill Bluethemann, Roger Ronekamp, and Jonathan Rogers, engineers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, work on amazing NASA exoskeleton technology. Exoskeleton technology can be worn by a person to assist in tasks or provide mobility.
One exoskeleton recently demonstrated to the public was worn on a wrist covering the hand. This technology was designed with the idea of improving grip, grasp, and lift capabilities. Another exoskeleton, the X1, was worn from the waist down on the outside of clothing like a brace. Such technologies and innovations may help improve mobility and strength for both astronauts and paraplegics. Currently aboard the ISS, in addition to the human crew, is Robonaut 2. Through a collaboration between NASA and General Motors, with assistance from Oceaneering Space Systems, this humanoid robot was developed to support and help the crew of the ISS perform tasks difficult or too dangerous for astronauts. Such technology can be applied to heavy lifting and other hazardous jobs here on Earth.
Ongoing and Future Missions to Mars
Just this past August, a Mini Cooper sized rover was successfully landed on the Mars surface, joining rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity carries a science laboratory on its back and will explore in ways no machine has done before. Already Curiosity has sent pictures of Mars surroundings back to Earth, made tracks traveling across the surface, shot a laser at a rock, and scooped up a sample of ground, analyzed the contents, and sent a chemical report back home.
The latest NASA mission to the Mars also has broad benefits to technologies on Earth. Technologies that may have positive impacts on our home planet, as well as future space exploration, include propulsion, power, telecommunications, and software engineering. Additionally, while on Mars, Curiosity is using advanced equipment that allows for remote science instrumentation and autonomous mobility. NASA and those partnering with it through research, development, and innovation are making a decisively positive impact on the world around us. The future is now. The future is before us. The future is ready for us to explore.
About the Author:
Dr. Gibson has been published in various peer reviewed journals such as the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Community College of Research and Practice, and Issues in Educational Research. She is active in regional and national education associations performing in roles as division co-chair, session chair and session discussant, graduate student mentor and discussant, and paper submission reviewer. Additionally, she serves on an editorial review board for an education journal. Dr. Gibson received a B.A. in International Relations from George Mason University, a Masters of Arts in Human Performance Systems, with a Graduate Certificate in Instructional Design, from Marymount University, and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, with concentrations in Adult Education, Higher Education, and Community College Education, from Texas A and M University – Kingsville.
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