In the early 1970s, the Johnson Space Center (JSC) undertook to adapt and apply technology developed for portable life support used by Apollo astronauts on the moon in a significant effort to improve firefighter breathing systems. This effort was in response to a need expressed by many of the nation's fire chiefs. What emerged four years later was a breathing system weighing slightly more than 20 pounds (about one-third less than prior systems), and a reduced profile design to improve the wearer's mobility.
This improved NASA breathing system also included a new face mask design allowing greater peripheral vision, a frame and harness which shifted the load to the wearer's hips resulting in more comfortable weight control, and an air-depletion warning system. After extensive testing by JSC, field testing followed in 1974-1975 by the fire departments of New York (the nation's largest), Houston, and Los Angeles. After completion of the tests, the New York City Fire Department became one of the first to adopt the new technology. The NASA improved firefighter's breathing system has now been adopted and used by firefighting companies nationwide. As a result of these lightweight breathing systems, inhalation injuries to firefighters have been drastically reduced.
In the early years of the space program, it took thousands of man-hours and months to analyze and solve structural problems in the design of aircraft and space vehicles using conventional mathematical methods. Today designers and engineers are able to analyze and solve thousands of structural problems in a matter of hours. An extremely complex and sophisticated computer program was developed at the Goddard Space Flight Center for this purpose; they named it NASTRAN. NASTRAN basically performs complex analyses of a structural design and predicts how various elements of the design will react to many different conditions of stress and strain. Quick and inexpensive, it minimizes trial-and-error in the design process and makes possible better, lighter, safer structures while significantly reducing development time.
As an example of savings, under previous methods, Bell Helicopter needed 4,550 man-hours to analyze five load conditions per helicopter, but with NASTRAN, only 1,675 man-hours are required for 36 load conditions per helicopter. The power of NASTRAN has been recognized and used by hundreds of industrial firms to solve structural problems in automotive, aircraft, chemical plant, oil refinery, rail vehicle and architectural design (car at right was designed with NASTRAN). NASTRAN is now widely considered to be the most significant advancement in structural design and analysis available in recent time. The NASA-sponsored Computer Software Management and Information Center (COSMIC) at the University of Georgia leases NASTRAN, as well as other aerospace-developed computer programs, to industrial firms for application and use.
For more than a decade, NASA's laboratories conducted research on the use of water hyacinths for treating and recycling wastewater for application in space colonies and long duration manned space flights of the future. Researchers discovered that water hyacinths thrive on sewage by absorbing and digesting nutrients and minerals from wastewater. Thus a means of purifying water at a fraction of the cost of a conventional sewage treatment facility had been found. Some added benefits of the hyacinths are that after routine harvesting, they can be used as fertilizer, high protein animal feed, or as a source of energy. NASA's findings attracted considerable attention from numerous communities and municipalities interested in applying the technology.
Today, dozens of small southern towns are now using water hyacinths as their primary method for treating wastewater. San Diego built a one million gallon per day plant for service in 1984. It uses water hyacinths in a hybrid aquatic plant/microbial filter. In addition, Disneyworld's EPCOT Center now operates a 50,000 to 350,000 gallon a day water treatment facility to explore advanced applications of hyacinths. The limitations of hyacinths to warm climates challenged the Stennis Space Center team to continue its research with an artificial marsh filtering system that employs a combination of sewage-digesting microbes and pollutant-absorbing plants such as bulrushes, reeds, and canna lilies.
Both cold- and salt-tolerant, the marshes can be used in northern climates to achieve the same goal as the water hyacinths. The ongoing spin-off process continues to innovate applications for use in air pollution reduction in superinsulated homes and offices through special plant and carbon filter systems.
A family of biomedical implantable devices have been developed over the past decade which are based on a wide array of space technologies, including battery advances, miniaturized circuitry, digital telemetry, and electronic sensing systems. The initial device was the rechargeable cardiac pacemaker, but many more continue to be developed that significantly aid health maintenance. A more recent human implant device is a programmable medication system that is designed to automatically inject medication, such as insulin, to specific organs of the body.
The Programmable Implantable Medication System (PIMS) was the product of a joint program between NASA and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The miniaturized pump and associated valve are a direct spin-off of the biological laboratory developed for the Viking space probe that landed on Mars. The action of the medication system can be prescribed by a physician to meet the specific needs of the patient through a telemetry system similar to those used by NASA to control the altitude of spacecraft.
Diabetic patients are the first to receive the PIMS implant which operates like an artificial pancreas to control high blood sugar levels automatically, obviating the need for daily injections of insulin. PIMS offers advantages in treatments of other diseases, such as programmed metering of blood thinning drugs to prevent coronary occlusion or stroke, where long-term injection from an internal source seems indicated. Now under routine use, the PIMS has provided new freedom from potentially restrictive lifestyles to large numbers of diabetics and victims of other long-term diseases.
Millions of alternating current motors are in use throughout industry and in consumer products. Much of the power they consume, however, is wasted because electricity is fed to homes and factories at a fixed voltage level which is not required constantly by motor-driven devices and equipment, especially when in an idling mode. The cumulative power wasted, considering the millions of electric motors in service, is enormous. In order to conserve energy in aerospace electromechanical systems, where power sources must be efficiently maximized, the Power Factor Controller (PFC), was developed at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. The PFC senses shifts in the relationship between voltage and current and matches those factors with the loading forces on motors during their operation.
Think of the escalator when fully occupied with people it places a maximum load on the motor drive, thus requiring maximum balance between voltage and current; however, when unoccupied it does not require the same level of power. Early tests showed that the PFC could trim power usage by six to eight percent under normal motor load conditions, and by as much as 65 percent when the motor was idling. With such tremendous energy saving potential, the PFC quickly became one of NASA's most widely adopted technologies.