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Space Technology Hall of Fame

1994

Digital imaging was developed in the mid-1960s to explore the surface of the Earth? moon. Conventional camera equipment mounted in the unmanned Ranger spacecraft returned distorted, lopsided images from the moon. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Dr. Robert Nathan began developing the first operational digital image processing software to address this problem. Digital Imaging - a process that turns analog signals into digital signals which are, in turn, fed into a computer for enhancement - returned sharp, accurate images of the lunar surface. 

This began a steady stream of advances in digital image processing, spurred by the advent of ever-more sophisticated spacecraft transmitting immense volumes of image data from distances farther and farther from Earth. In the years following, JPL's Drs. Robert Nathan, Robert Selzer, and Kenneth Castleman pioneered use of digital processing techniques to enhance electron microscope, x-ray, and light microscope images. This work sparked experimental medical applications by other organizations and emergence of a growing industry providing image processing systems for health care. Among medical applications derived from this technology are computed tomography (CAT) scanning, diagnostic radiography, brain or cardiac angiography, sonar body imaging, surgery monitoring, and nuclear magnetic resonance. Many successful companies and products today are direct offspring of digital imaging technology. The medical applications and refinements continue to bring significant new diagnostic resources to health professionals and the general public they serve.
Excimer Laser Angioplasty, utilizing a laser system initially developed for satellite-based atmospheric studies, is now a powerful instrument for treating heart disease. Excimer laser technology was initially pioneered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for remote sensing of the ozone layer. Other laser types are too hot for delicate coronary surgery and could damage tissue, cause blood vessel spasms, or create blood clots. The excimer is a `cool` laser that uses ultraviolet light energy to operate at 65° C, a temperature human tissue can tolerate. 

Laser angioplasty is a procedure where a thin fiber-optic catheter is inserted into an artery in the leg and threaded to a blockage in a coronary artery. A tiny optical assembly diffuses the laser strand into a small cone-shaped laser beam as it is emitted from the catheter. The non-thermal laser vaporizes blockages in the artery without damaging delicate tissue. The procedure can be performed in a non-surgical setting using a local anesthetic. The hospital stay is minimal, and there is less post-operative pain, discomfort, and risk to the patient. Developed by Advanced Interventional Systems, Inc., the Dymer 200+ excimer laser angioplasty system vaporizes the buildup of fatty deposits - called plaque - in the arteries. It is safer than coronary bypass operations and offers wider utility than balloon angioplasty. In clinical trials the success rate in opening blocked coronary arteries was shown to be 85 percent, with fewer complications than in balloon angioplasty. In January 1992, the system received Food and Drug Administration approval for treatment of coronary disease.
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