Cool NASA Inventions May Be In Your Closet
Hundreds of products built with technology from Johnson Space Center common today
By Brian Rogers
Dr. Michael DeBakey, right, displays a ventricular assist device – a tiny heart-assist pump – that he designed.
Life-saving heart pumps, space-age work-out clothes and refrigerators in remote Africa that keep vaccines below the temperature of a cold beer are just some of the thousands of inventions from the Johnson Space Center that continue to shape the world.
More than 1,500 “spin-off” products and innovations come out of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration each year, with some emerging directly from the massive complex of labs and testing centers in Clear Lake, a bedroom community in southeast Houston.
“We’re so ubiquitous with all the technologies that we’ve spun off over the past 50-plus years of existence that you just see this stuff everywhere,” said NASA tech executive Daniel Lockney based in Washington, D.C. “It’s amazing to me that the benefits of NASA are so far and wide.”
NASA is well-known for innovations of light-weight materials and advances in aerospace and robotics, he said. But myriad other ground-breaking inventions are “serendipitous by-products,” including material that makes mattresses feel cooler, a handheld device that lets firefighters see flames through walls or even a better way to pressurize beer.
Not all the new inventions from NASA come directly from the Johnson Space Center, though the scientists and engineers at all of the agency’s facilities collaborate, Lockney said.
The cooperation and inventive spirit has led to such real-world applications as the cameras in everyone’s smart phones or the super filter that purifies water in virtually every dentist’s office across the country.
In Houston, NASA and the world-famous Texas Medical Center have had some legendary collaborations. Chief among those may be the ventricular assist device, a heart pump designed by famed heart surgeon Michael DeBakey and David Saucier, one of the engineers from JSC.
Later generations of the device are still used today to help heart patients as they wait for transplants.
“This pump’s gone through seven distinct iterations since it was created,” said Rodger Ford, CEO and founder of ReliantHeart, the company that succeeded MicroMed, the original company that built the device. “It all relates back to the original design work that NASA did. It was that ‘foundation design’ that has carried the day.”
Ford marveled at how a NASA fuel engineer who was one of DeBakey’s patients helped revolutionize a medical device because they both lived in Houston.
“It never would have happened otherwise,” he said.
Ford, CEO or ReliantHeart led the development of the modern technology and solutions that take the original DeBakey/NASA VAD well into the future. The aVAD is the successor to the DeBakey/NASA VAD. Seven iterations have led to a device that is smaller on the outside yet retains the original internal diameter and throughput and the aVAD draws just 50% of the power of the original design. Ford added 24/7 remote monitoring of “TrueFlow” over the VadLink network. Anywhere in the world a patient is constantly monitored.
The aVAD is now so small that it can be implanted directly in the ventricle. And in the near future the Liberty System will be introduced by ReliantHeart. The power source will be internal in an implanted battery much like the modern pacemaker.
In another uniquely Houston medical story, NASA was deeply involved in trying to help David Vetter, known to history as “the boy in the bubble.” David was born in the early 1970s with a fatal immune disease and became internationally famous. He lived out his life in the Texas Medical Center inside a series of sterile plastic bubbles and a miniature space suit that had been built by the space agency. He died at age 12 waiting for a cure.
Others who have worked at JSC say their peers encouraged them to follow their passions past the invention.
One of those inventors is David Bergeron, a former NASA engineer at JSC who is living in Hungary because of the spin-off he helped create. Bergeron, who grew up in Dickinson, was an outside contractor who spent 18 years designing satellites. He also cultivated two hobbies befitting a mechanical engineer: alternative energy technology and the thermodynamics of refrigeration.
When his satellite work ended, he wrote a proposal for the NASA lab on solar-powered refrigeration. That led to a job working on the technology he would later patent.
Bergeron founded a company called SunDanzer, to make high-tech solar refrigerators that work great for keeping vaccines viable throughout Africa. Before Bergeron and his peers at NASA cracked the code, all solar-powered refrigerators either had to have a generator, a battery or both. Bergeron’s refrigerators use solar power to slowly start and power the compressors; they never have to be plugged in.
“It solved a problem the World Health Organization was having with the medical refrigerators in the past – the batteries failed pretty quick,” he said. “They wanted a new technology that they could deploy and come back 10 years later and have them working fine with very little maintenance.”
Beer, it turns out, may be more of a muse to NASA engineers than the space agency wants to admit. Another JSC spinoff began with efforts to corral the carbon dioxide on Mars in the event humans ever colonize the Red Planet. That technology led to affordable systems for microbreweries to turn waste CO2 created by brewing beer into bubbles that carbonate the beer, saving money and putting less of the greenhouse into the environment, according to Spinoffs, the magazine the agency puts out detailing its technological applications.
In the early 1990s, a Colorado company licensed the rights to use “phase change material” – the textile that was originally engineered for use in astronaut’s gloves and helps balance temperature in space.
More than two decades later, Outlast Technologies has modified and re-engineered the spin-off and sells material to national brands such as Sealy, New Era, Evenflo, Jockey and Timberland, said Heather Manuel, a representative of the company.
Several creations, however, are mistakenly credited to the agency.
Hard as it may be to believe it, Tang, Teflon and Velcro are not spin-offs of the space race.
In an oft-quoted release from NASA, the agency explains General Foods developed the powdered orange drink Tang in 1957. In 1962, when astronaut John Glenn performed eating experiments in orbit with the drink mix, it landed forever on the public’s conscience as the space drink.
Teflon, a material invented for DuPont in 1938, became more famous when NASA applied it to heat shields, space suits and cargo-hold liners.
Velcro was used during the Apollo missions to anchor equipment in zero gravity situations, although it was a Swiss invention from the 1940s.