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Space Technology Hall of Fame

2000

One of NASA's life science research goals is to better understand plant growth in microgravity. NASA found that it was difficult to use traditional plant growth light sources in space because they require considerable power and turn much of it into heat. This means that the experimental system has to have good controls to eliminate temperature variance that could affect plant growth results. The Wisconsin Center for Space Automation & Robotics proposed using light emitting diodes (LEDs) as the photon source for plant growth experiments conducted in space. This idea generated considerable discussion, as the prevailing view among experts was that LEDs could not provide the necessary wavelengths and intensities needed for photosynthesis. The Wisconsin group teamed with Quantum Devices, Inc. to develop an LED system that was successful in supporting photosynthesis. 

The Wisconsin Center then produced the Astroculture3 a plant growth chamber that incorporated the LED light source and has flown on 7 shuttle missions. An ongoing medical objective is to find better ways to remove cancerous tumors. A promising mechanism for treating inoperable tumors is to use light-sensitive, tumor-treating drugs. This Photodynamic Therapy (PDT) approach allows physicians to activate the drug only in the tumor. The most common used light source to activate a tumor drug is a laser. The problem with a laser is that it is expensive, bulky, and somewhat unreliable in a surgical environment. What is needed is a small, highly reliable light source that could provide specific energies and intensities. A NASA Small Business Innovative Research award was given to Quantum Devices, Inc. and Harry Whelan, MD to develop an LED light source that could be used in a surgical environment as the photon source for PDT. As a result of over 5 years of intensive research and experimentation a functioning LED probe has been developed and has received FDA approval for use in patients who exhausted all other means of treatment. 

To date the LED treatment has focused on skin cancers and brain tumors. Several successful cases have been reported. Another NASA need has led to yet another possible application for the use of LEDs. In microgravity wounds heal much more slowly. The Wisconsin team has conducted experiments that demonstrate that LEDs have help human-cell cultures grow 5 times faster than normal. These results have led to a research program that is testing LEDs capability to increase wound healing. If the experimental results are promising, human clinical trials will follow. The outcome could be a new medical instrument that can used on long duration space flights to treat astronaut's wounds as well as having a new technology on earth to treat burns, sport's injuries, etc.
A few decades ago visionaries at Hughes Electronics Corporation believed that it should be possible to produce a digitally-based, direct broadcast satellite (DBS) that would provide services directly to home consumers. This idea was based upon a perceived growing market and the technology and know-how the corporation had from developing satellites for military and telecommunications customers. Various innovators within Hughes pursued the concept and in 1984 Hughes received permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to construct a direct broadcast satellite. Hughes invested $750 million to develop a system that included the production of three high-powered satellites, a broadcast center and the operational elements needed to offer the service to consumers. In 1991, DirecTV, Inc was formed to offer direct-to-home television service that was a viable alternative to cable and off-air reception. The DBS system designed for DirecTV would incorporate some novel technologies developed by Hughes and others. Probably the most enabling was new digital compression technology that allowed the system to deliver numerous programming channels with quality that surpassed what could be produced with older analog technology. The new satellites also would be higher powered which would allow them to send more focused digital streams. 

This permitted the development and introduction of the small receiver dish. Previously satellite dishes were 4 - 8 feet in diameter, whereas the new dishes would be only 20 inches in diameter. This would significantly reduce the cost, mounting space and other installation requirements. To avoid quick technological obsolescence Hughes designed the satellites and the support system to be updateable so it could offer enhanced services. For example in 1998 DirecTV was able to easily add high definition television capability to its DBS service. Other types of consumer services planned for the near future are AOL interactive television and TiVo personal television. The use of DirecTV has increased every year since its introduction. Specific applications for the private sector and the military have been or are being developed. In its first full year of commercial operation DirecTV obtained 1 million subscribers, which is a record that still stands for adoption of a new technology. Today DirecTV offers over 210 channels of service and has over 6 million residential customers. 

DirecTV is an outstanding example of a commercial space-based attribute that enriches the lives of millions of people on earth.
In the mid 1990s NASA discovered an environmental problem with the material that was being used to lubricate the massive track system on the shuttle mobile launch transporter. Not surprisingly the lubricant requirements are rather extraordinary for this transporter. The product has to provide long-lasting and complete lubrication for a moving set of tracks that are carrying a 12 million pound load. To satisfy the environmental requirement it also has to be biodegradable. In 1994, the challenge of producing a new lubricant was accepted by Sun Coast Chemicals of Daytona, which brought a team of researchers, production personnel and consultants to meet with NASA personnel and contractors to develop a solution. In just a few weeks the Sun Coast team produced a novel formulation that was tested and certified for trial by the Predicative Engineering Group at the Cape. The new lubricant, X-1R Crawler Track Lube was then tested directly on the crawler and worked perfectly.
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