Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on 20 July 1969 with that famous phrase on the tip of his tongue: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” An astonished world realized, at that moment, that it had just witnessed one of the greatest scientific achievements of all times, as well as the apex of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In subsequent years, other men walked on Earth’s satellite until the Apollo missions were cancelled in 1972, in order to invest in space shuttles. As time goes by, however, the initial importance of the trip to the Moon is being gradually reassessed. Today, researchers and aerospace experts debate if there is an actual need for manned missions and ask themselves whether there is any scientific reason to return to the Moon, as scheduled by the US government for 2020. What is not discussed, however, are the spinoffs, i.e., the benefits that space programs have brought to society.
Spin-off is an English term meaning unfolding. It is used to describe creations that turn into products, or a new firm that is created by academic research groups or by another firm. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface followed by Edwin Aldrin – Michael Collins remained in orbit in the service module – they wore suits especially developed for that mission. The tissue had a cover of resistant fiberglass (that neither dilated nor shrank) and it did not need cleaning thanks to Teflon surfacing to which dirt did not adhere. The suit also had temperature control to protect the astronauts from extremes of heat and cold (from 117°C during the day to -173°C at night), plus non-flammable fabric. The boots were air molded in rigid material to avoid fast wear and tear, but had joints that made them flexible.
Food was lyophilized. The technique consists of dehydrating food by freezing it at -50°C and then vacuum packing it, which avoids contamination and conserves 98% of its nutritional value with only 20% of its original weight. The water purifier developed for the modules used silver and copper ions. Isolation was achieved with PET (a polyester, polyethylene terephthalate) plus a metal surface used to reflect head and infrared rays.
These technologies were developed as part of the space project headed by NASA, the US space agency, as from 1958, and all of them turned into products. The material space-suits material had several destinations: the fiber glass with Teflon turned into the covering of sports gymnasiums; the temperature control system is used in the suits of people who work in very high temperature environments in industry; the non-flammable fabric can be found in fire brigade uniforms; and the boot manufacturing system was adapted for making sneakers. The lyophilized foods have been sold in supermarkets for the last 30 years and the water purifiers can be found in homes. The isolating polyester has a range of applications in homes, isolating them from cold or heat. These examples were drawn merely from the missions held up until 1969 (find out about the others in the highlighted segments below). Two products, Teflon and Velcro, became synonymous with NASA spinoffs. Actually, the agency only lent new status to both, as the former had been created by the company Dupont in 1938 and the latter was a Swiss invention from the 1940’s. In other words, they were created long before the space program. Most of the development of technologies for solving problems in extraterrestrial environments was outsourced to university and corporate research groups. As far back as 1962, NASA started its Technological Utilization Program, from which the IACs (Industrial Application Centers) arose. To inform the scientific community about the available technologies, the publication Tech Briefs was created and, starting in 1973, the Technology Utilization Program Report started to be issued once a year. This aimed at informing the public of the benefits of the space program for society and fighting the notion that the agency wastes US tax-payers’ money on useless projects.
“The spin-offs became a major distinguishing feature of the American program as compared to the Soviet one,” says Silvio Roberto Macera, a researcher from IAE, the Aeronautics and Space Institute that is part of CTA, the General Commanding Office of Aerospace Technology. “The Soviets were happy to create technology for one sole purpose and didn’t worry about the commercial aspects, which was a mistake.” In the United States, most of the R&D was conducted by firms commissioned by NASA and there was a view that that should also be useful for society. The spinoffs proved to have other advantages: they generated new jobs and obliged firms to work with a level of quality that had been unthinkable until then. “When it comes to sending people into space, one can’t use an invention that is not entirely reliable. This is a prerequisite set by NASA”, explains Macera.
Perhaps the greatest R&D benefit in the space area is not an actual, palpable product, such as non-invasive heart monitors, developed after 1965, used to monitor the performance of the astronauts in orbit inside space shuttles as from 1983. “None of the products launched in the market comes near the importance of the information system created through artificial satellites,” evaluates Petrônio Noronha, head of the Integration and Trials Laboratory of Inpe, the National Space Research Institute (Inpe). At first, putting satellites into space had only one military objective: spying. As space projects progressed, however, it soon became apparent that they could play an increasingly greater role in the global communication system, as from the mid-1970’s. Today, the world is entirely dependent on satellites when it comes to areas such as telecommunications and the environment. “All the Earth observations, including surveillance of deforestation and slash-burning, as well as the use of soil and of urban space, are conducted with satellites”, says Noronha.
Though the spin-offs represent undeniable progress, the space program that gave rise to them is far from being unanimously supported by scientists. “When you make a concentrated effort involving a lot of money, talent and infrastructure, normally the output is good, as was demonstrated during World War II,” comments Gilberto Câmara, the director of Inpe. “However, some US$150 billion was invested in the 11 years of the Apollo program. If the United States had spent all this money just on the creation of composite materials or medical products, wouldn’t we have achieved even better results?”, asks Câmara, a critic of manned space missions. He has no answer to this question. But he feels it is healthy to keep it in mind during the celebration of the 40th anniversary of man’s trip to the Moon.
Developed by NASA in 1996 to absorb impact, it is used on the space shuttle seats. It is foam with “memory”, which gives according to the weight of each body part, and then returns to normal. It is used in pillows and orthopedic products.
In 2000, a simple exercise machine was created that can be used during the shuttle flights, through strong nylon filaments that enable versatile exercises. The equipment has become popular.
Along with researching physicians, edible toothpaste was developed. The product is useful in the healthcare field for handicapped patients.
Diagnosis at a distance
Space shuttle experiments enabled the development of ultrasound diagnosis at a distance. On Earth, it can be used by people who are far away from hospitals.
The lenses that protect one from ultraviolet A and B rays (UVA/UVB), created by NASA and used by soldering workers, and in sunglasses.
Body temperature in seconds
The same technology that records the heat of stars was applied to a thermometer that measures energy through the human eardrum and reads body temperature within two seconds.
An experiment conducted with algae, with a view to transforming them into long-lasting food in space turned out to be a nutritious milk supplement for babies.
High resistance steel
The Brazilian space program also has its spinoffs. One of the better known ones is high resistance, low weight steel, developed jointly by CTA, Eletrometal, Usiminas, Acesita and Wotan as one of the components of the Satellite Launching Vehicle. Currently, the 300M steel is used in commercial aircraft landing gear.