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Space spinoffs: The technology to reach the moon

The Apollo program was gigantic.

Government spent roughly $ 26 billion (about $ 260 billion in today's dollars, according to one estimate) between 1960 and 1972 to hire contractors and sub-contractors. 19659002] While some of the tech has stayed in the space industry, much of it has trickled down to the public. There's a huge list of the stuff. NASA has an entire department devoted to cataloging it all.

Sometimes separating myth from reality is not easy. These six, however, are bona fide space program spinoffs.

Freeze-dried food

Beef pot roast, lobster bisque, peach ambrosia – all things that if you were to Apollo astronaut, you

Freeze-dried foods were perfect for the weight-conscious Apollo missions, in which the spacecraft needed to stay lean enough to get to the moon and back even as the astronauts consumed a heart 2,800 calories per day to keep themselves going.

A favorite? Shrimp cocktails, according to Charles Bourland, 1


"It's got a little bit of spice to it, and shrimp hydrates really well." It's just like having a fresh shrimp with cocktail sauce, "he says.

One thing they had to avoid? High-fiber diets.

 Mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka takes a break on the mid-deck of the Discovery space shuttle during the STS 51-C mission in the 1980s.

Mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka takes a STS 51-C mission in the 1980s.


On the Apollo missions, the system for defecation was little more than a bag with a small opening and some adhesive around the edge. It was so inconvenient that it could take astronauts 45 minutes to complete the process and there was a chance that the waste material could escape and other parts of the cabin.

"Astronauts did not want to have to go to the bathroom any more than they had to, "Bourland says.

Since Apollo, space toilets have gotten better and "we could start using regular food," he says.

Freeze-dried foods were not invented for Apollo specifically, but the number of varieties, their texture, flavor and presentation has changed because of it. Fruit cocktails, for instance, have been reformulated so that they would not be crushed when sealed in vacuum bags.

 Astronauts James H. Newman (left) and Michael J. Massimino. John M. Grunsfeld (right) and Richard M. Linnehan.

Astronauts James H. Newman (left) and Michael J. Massimino wear the liquid cooling and ventilation garment that complements the spacesuit during a 2002 mission. John M. Grunsfeld (right) and Richard M. Linnehan are pictured on the Columbia space


Cooling suits

Astronauts from the World

That's why NASA acquired rights to use liquid cooling and ventilation garments in 1966. The skintight suits had 300 feet of tubing snapping along the outside and running chilled water

Fifty-three years after the design was made public, it's being used to help people with multiple sclerosis symptoms are exacerbated by heat.

"Heat for me is like kryptonite for Superman," says Josie Benassi from Reading, Mass., Who has multiple sclerosis and likes to go on long tandem bike rides with her husband.

When temperatures rise above 75 degrees, her muscles weaken and it can be tough for her to walk or even stand. [CoolinggearI'mgoodoutsidefor20minutes"saysMarcoMartinezfromAustinTexaswhohasMS"I'maprisonerfromJuneuntilSeptemberinthehouseunlessIhavesomecoolingequipmentwithme"

The product Marco and Josie use is CoolShirt Systems, whose founder was inspired by NASA's design.

Fireproof materials

After three astronauts were killed in the Apollo 1 fire on Jan. 27, 1967, NASA was left flammable, including what

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It found what was needed in polybenzimidazole,

or PBI, a heat-resistant material developed by dr. Carl Shipp Marvel (yes, "Dr. Marvel"), pioneer in synthetic materials. After Apollo 1, the Celanese Corporation has phased out, providing another layer of protection.

Firefighting suits that contain PBI are one main market for the material now. According to the manufacturer, it's effective for up to 1300 degrees.

"A lot of people do not realize that's where [it] came from." It started from Apollo, "says Bill Lawson, president of PBI Performance Products, which was spun off by Celanese and sold to investors in 2005." Unfortunately, those three astronauts paid the ultimate price. "

Spring tires

Driving on the moon is way more extreme than off- roading on Earth. Wild temperature swings and unfiltered sunlight will punish regular tires. Shards of dried lava wants shred them.

What you need is a durable tire – stiff enough to support a vehicle, but squishy enough to roll right over rocks. Oh, and you can not have a flat.

So Apollo engineers outfitted the Lunar Roving Vehicle, which was much like guitar or piano string. Those tires were on rovers that flew with Apollo 15, 16 and 17. Then in 2004 President George W. Bush declared we were returning to the moon. As NASA got into gear, Vivake Asnani, a young aerospace technologist at NASA's Glenn Research Center, became fascinated with the long-forgotten wheels.

"It's amazing how they came up with this this? "

 Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene A. Cernan makes a short checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (shown in close-up at right) during the early part of the Apollo 17 extravehicular activity at the Taurus-Littrow landing site in 1972.

Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene A. Cernan makes a short checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (shown in close-up at right) during the early part of the Apollo 17 extravehicular activity at the Taurus-Littrow landing site in 1972.


In 2007, Asnani tracked down the original designers, one of whom pulled a spare Apollo tire out of his closet as a gift. With Goodyear's help, Asnani's team built a dozen replicas. By 2009, they have developed an even better version with a chain-mail-like appearance, which they called the "spring tire." They were ready for the moon. And then, President Barack Obama has canceled the program.

Since then, Asnani's team has swapped steel wire for a nickel titanium "shape memory alloy," a better material with the super power to deform and regain its shape. They've tested the tires on Jeeps, and Asnani says it would not go flat.

Oh, and now that our sights are once again on the moon?

 The Apollo computer interface box was used in the F-8 digital fly-by-wire program.

The Apollo computer interface box was used in the F-8 digital fly-by-wire program.

Dennis Taylor / NASA

Digital fly-by-wire

Neil Armstrong was outstanding pilot, who had "the right stuff" to get NASA to the moon. But even a pilot of his caliber could not single-handedly control the lunar module's 16 thrusters and two rocket engines.

Don Eyles, a computer scientist who worked on software for the Apollo lunar, says "The job of flying a spacecraft is too mathematical for a human to do it by the seat of their pants module.

The Apollo spacecraft was a crucial demonstration of digital fly-by-wire technology. Instead of a manual system of pulleys, cables and hydraulics attached to the pilot's control sticks and pedals, in a digital fly-by-wire system, the pilot's controls enter into a computer, which uses them to process and translate those commands into electrical signals

"It really is a child of digital reality," says David Mindell, CEO of Humatics and author of Digital Apollo.

Digital fly-by-wire technology has since helped steer the space shuttle , Commercial jets search the Boeing 777 and the Airbus 320, and a fleet of fighter jets and bombers. In fact, it was the F-8 Crusader jet that first used the technology … after NASA engineers proposed installing an analogous fly-by-wire system in the plane in 1970.

The deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA reportedly asked, "Why analog?" The engineers said they did not know digitally qualified for flight. The administrator, who happened to be Armstrong himself, replied: "I just went to the moon and back on one."

 The 1 1/2-inch silicon disk left on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts bears messages of goodwill from many heads of state.

The 1 1/2-inch silicon disk left on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts bears messages of goodwill from many heads of state.


Integrated circuits

The Apollo spacecraft required light, compact, powerful computers. So NASA and the MIT Instrumentation Lab made a daring decision. They built the Apollo Guidance Computer with a rather unproven technology:

The Apollo program did not invent the microchip, but it guaranteed a huge early market – by 1963, Project Apollo absorbed up to 60 percent of the US supply of chips. The military also installed chips in its Minuteman-II missiles.

Both NASA and the Air Forces are forced to operate companies like Fairchild Semiconductor to prove the chips' reliability by subjecting them to extreme temperatures and G-forces and rigorous visual and electrical inspections. The result? Gordon Moore's famous law about the accelerating pace of computing power was Apollo's part in accelerating the silicon chip revolution.

"You probably have had integrated circuits," says John Tylko, a scholar who teaches a course called Engineering Apollo at MIT. Moore's Law in 1965. "You might still have had a decade later."

Tylko says that astronaut Eugene Cernan, who left humankind's last footprints to date on the moon, may have summed up Apollo's achievements best in 2007 when he said: "It's almost as if [President John F. Kennedy] reaching out into the 21st century where we are today, grabbed hold of a decade of time, slipped it neatly into the '60s and' 70s and called it Apollo. "

Christopher Intagliata is a senior producer and editor of the public radio science show Friday and a Reporter for Scientific American's 60-Second Science podcast. Jacob Margolis is a science reporter at KPCC and the host of the earthquake podcast The Big One: Your Survival Guide.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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