Planetary Radio • Mar 03, 2021
Spinoffs: How NASA Technologies Benefit Life on Earth
On This Episode
Technology Transfer Program Executive for NASA Headquarters
Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society
Cleaning up water pollution, inventing inexpensive ventilators for hospitals, turning waste plastic into sidewalks, and making baby formula more nutritious—these and thousands of other innovations have come directly from research and development for space exploration. NASA technology transfer program executive Daniel Lockney takes us on a tour of Spinoff 21, the agency’s fascinating new report. Bruce Betts reminds us that a spin past Venus is sometimes the best way to head to far more distant worlds. That’s the inspiration for this week’s What’s Up space trivia contest.
- NASA Spinoff Website
- Spinoff 2021 Report
- NASA Technology Transfer Program
- Perseverance Firsts: The Best Moments from NASA's Mars Rover Landing
- The Downlink
This week's prizes:
A copy of The Lion of Mars by award-winning children’s author Jennifer Holm. Also, a Planetary Society r-r-r-rubber asteroid!
This week's question:
Of the spacecraft which used Venus for a gravity assist maneuver, which went farthest out in the solar system?
To submit your answer:
Complete the contest entry form at https://www.planetary.org/radiocontest or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, March 10th at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.
Last week's question:
How many uncrewed spaceflights have there been to the International Space Station?
The winner will be revealed next week.
Question from the 17 February space trivia contest:
How many and which space agencies had their first Mars orbiters get it right, achieving orbit and operating above the Red Planet?
Three space agencies reached Martian orbit successfully on their first tries: The European Space Agency with Mars Express, the Indian Space Research Organisation with the Mars Orbital Mission, and the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in the United Arab Emirates with Hope.
Mat Kaplan: NASA's innovations that benefit you and all of us, this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome. I'm Mat Kaplan of the Planetary Society with more of the humid adventure across our solar system and beyond. NASA's Dan Lockney is back with a big bag full of amazing inventions and tools created for space that have been put to work down here on the pale blue dot. Dan will share highlights from the agency's brand new Spinoff 21 collection that features life-saving hospital ventilators, a new technique for removing toxic waste from water, and a way to remove toxic aromas from our shoes. Along with much, much more.
Mat Kaplan: Then Bruce Betts will spin on down from orbit with some surprising facts about past Mars missions, a preview of the night sky, and a new space trivia contest. Mars's atmosphere is so thin, I'm leaving space for your line here, it's so thin that if you look straight up from the surface, you see stars and the black of space, even at local noon. That space fact tops the February 26th edition of The Downlink, our weekly newsletter. It's followed by a reminder that we have captured all the drama of the perseverance landing at Planetary.org.
Mat Kaplan: And have you seen the spectacular panorama captured by Mastcam-Z? Wow. The launch of NASA's double asteroid redirection test, or dark mission, has been delayed thanks in part to the darn pandemic. It's now expected to leave earth between November of this year and February of 2022. With its impactful arrival at asteroid Didymos and its small companion expected in September of next year. We've got a great guide to this mission. You'll also find a Planetary.org. There's a new Downlink every Friday, you can subscribe and get it in your mailbox for free.
Mat Kaplan: The Oxford dictionary's first definition of spinoff is a by-product or incidental result of a larger project. That's not bad, except that there's nothing incidental about the spinoffs that emerged from NASA. In fact, as you're about to hear from Daniel Lockney, sharing the technologies and solutions it develops has always been part of the space agency's mission. As NASA's technology transfer program executive, Dan Lockney's duties extend far beyond spin-offs, but it's the publication of the newest collection of these innovations in Spinoff 21 that made me want to talk with him again.
Mat Kaplan: Dan, I'm afraid it has been over 4 years since we last talked, which means a lot more innovative NASA technology has found its place around the world, and research, and industry, and elsewhere. It's really been too long, but I'm happy to welcome you back. Welcome back.
Dan Lockney: Thanks. It's good to be here. It's four years, but it feels just like yesterday. It's good to hear you. It's good to be here.
Mat Kaplan: It is nice to be able to pick up with another comfortable conversation. And as we were just talking about before we started recording, we can see each other now because of this improvement in the software that we're using, probably some spinoff technology enabled this. I'm just guessing.
Dan Lockney: I don't know for certain, but I'll go on and say yeah, probably.
Mat Kaplan: Well, there's a lot of compression involved here. So data compression, I wouldn't be surprised. For the two or three people listening who've just returned from 50 years on Mars, give us a thumbnail sketch, please, of what spinoffs are and how they fit into NASA's mission.
Dan Lockney: Absolutely. Gappy to provide a quick overview. But we're going to have to go all the way back to 1958, [inaudible 00:03:49] but I'll try to make it quick. When Congress created NASA, 60 plus years ago, they had the foresight to write into our foundational legislation some instructions, I'm paraphrasing, but it's don't just let the technologies you've developed for space application blast off the earth, but make sure that they come back down here and benefit us in our everyday lives. We want some terrestrial applications.
Dan Lockney: So for the past 60 plus years, every time NASA does something new, and we have a reputation for doing that. Every time we do something new, we develop a new technology, innovation, concept, material, chemical compound, some sort of advancement of the state-of-the-art. My office takes a look at it and determines who else could use it and what's the best way to get it to them. And we call that technology transfer. We've got a long history of this technology transfer. When a company takes a NASA innovation and turns it into a product or a service that benefits us here on earth, we call that a spinoff. It got named a spinoff back in the 1970s when television sitcom spinoffs were first becoming a thing. And the name has just stuck with us ever since.
Dan Lockney: We've been recording these things again, we've been doing this since the '60s. Been recording them ever since the '70s in our spin-off publication. And we've had thousands of examples of consumer goods, safety equipment, medical advances, industrial applications, new techniques for manufacturing that make our lives safer, more enjoyable, and make life here on earth better.
Mat Kaplan: And we're going to talk about a few of those. Some that stood out for me and maybe some that might occur to you that you might want to bring up as great examples. It is absolutely amazing to see the diversity of these spinoffs, of these technologies that have come out of developing, exploring, space exploration. As you know, I love to read the spinoff reports. You've changed the format this year. It has never looked better or been more fun to read.
Dan Lockney: Thanks. We started this publication in the '70s, and it remained largely unchanged since 1976. We would put out a big book once a year. And you, my buddy Craig, and a few other folks are the only people I know who read it, like read it cover to cover. Every year NASA prints out a 300 page book, and it's got this beautiful thud when it lands on a desk. You go, "Here's all the cool stuff NASA did. How do you like this?" And there's a funk, and you go, "There must be a lot in there." But what we realized is nobody's reading it cover to cover. Nobody other than you and Craig reads it cover to cover.
Dan Lockney: The way we consume information is digitally in short bursts. And we realized that publishing a book at the end of the year wouldn't be as valuable, or as timely or as modern as we take advantage of the social media, publishing timely relevant content. I know we're going to talk about Mars Perseverance. We published Mars Perseverance story around the same time as the mission was in the news, versus the typical way of publishing, which we would do, is wait until the end of the year and say, "Hey, remember this?" And maybe people do, maybe they don't. We've increased our readership again, moving from a print publication once a year to a timely agile modern digital publication format.
Dan Lockney: We've increased our readership by absurd numbers, reaching millions of people versus 10 to thousands. And [inaudible 00:07:15] contents more timely. We're still making a physical book. Although with this virtual environment we're in, there's no real need for a physical book. There's no one in the warehouses to ship them, but currently it looks like a PDF. And I agree, it's a gorgeous publication. It's neat, it's readable, it's accessible. I think it's a good one. It's spinoff.nasa.gov.
Mat Kaplan: Thank you for that. And we'll bring that up again. And of course, we'll put that link on this week's show page that people can find at planetary.org/radio. Yeah. I'm a big fan of eBooks, so I'm okay with this, but there was something nice about it. I mean, it was coffee table material. There is a map in the book that shows where these technologies are being developed and being put to use. It's pretty impressive. It's pretty much throughout the US, isn't it?
Dan Lockney: It is. We have spinoff technology in all 50 States. One of the states that's been hardest for us to get technology developed in and commercialized in is Wyoming. But I'm proud to say I've learned some trivia recently that we have more companies producing NASA spinoff technology in Wyoming than there are escalators in Wyoming. It turns out that the entire state, and I believe this is true. If it's not, this could be the one lie that I tell on your show today. I believe, what I've heard is that there are two pairs of escalators in the state, and we have three companies that have worked with us that are in the state of Wyoming. So I feel okay with that.
Mat Kaplan: I like that.
Dan Lockney: I should mention also, I don't have to mention, but I will mention, there's four manufacturers of elevators, escalators, and moving sidewalks across the world. And why I know this and why it's interesting to me and why I'm bringing it up, is each one of those manufacturers uses a voltage controller device that NASA developed a little while back, that regulates the amount of energy usage the electric motor is going to use according to how much load is on that motor. Without this device, an elevator or escalator will be operating as if it were under a full load, regardless of whether it were empty. It's called the Nola device after Frank Nola, who's the inventor at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, who invented it.
Dan Lockney: This Nola device saves energy in every elevator, every escalator, every moving sidewalk in the world built since the 1980s, including the two escalators in Wyoming.
Mat Kaplan: I'll be darned. And what a great segue. Escalators was even more relevant than I thought it would be. I mentioned it's been a tough year. It's been a tough year for everybody, including everybody at NASA, but NASA has also responded to the pandemic and this got, at least in my part of the country, it got a lot of attention because JPL was involved with the development of ventilators. But I suspect, and in fact, it's documented in Spinoff 21, NASA's response went considerably beyond that.
Dan Lockney: Yeah. I love NASA, and I love the space exploration, the advancing our understanding of the universe and our place in it, and space. It's just cool. But for me and for my work, what really gets me excited is when it impacts us here on earth and makes people's lives better. So, if you think way back to March of last year right when the NBA canceled its season, Tom Hanks got sick and we all went home. Right when this got real for everybody, and we were in the middle of a pandemic, all of a sudden. A lot of us tried to figure out how to make face masks and keep ourselves safe and hunker down, wash our hands as many times as we could.
Dan Lockney: There's a handful of inventors at JPL who were watching the news and said, there's a shortage of ventilators. How hard could it be to make a ventilator? Which, most of us would have that passing thought and say, "Very hard." They set about designing a ventilator that had fewer than 100 parts, and none of the parts were in the current needed supply chain for ventilators, so they wouldn't interrupt. It wasn't "Make my ventilator instead." It was "Make my ventilator also." With a little bit of a simpler design than the ones that would qualify for hospital use, but we needed them, and we needed them fast.
Dan Lockney: So they developed this ventilator. It took them a handful of weeks. They got emergency FDA clearance, and within six weeks of, the rest of us were figuring out to what extent do I wash my groceries, do I wash each grape, or do I watch the whole bunch of them? These JPL inventors had developed this ventilator. They applied for patent protection on it, but the patent protection wasn't the way you usually think of a patent as a defensive maneuver that prevents people from using it. Rather, it was a way to publish enabling documentation in a credible way for the world to see.
Dan Lockney: They filed for patent protection, and then gave free patent licenses along with manufacturing advice and guidance to dozens of companies all around the world to develop this emergency-use ventilator. Phenomenal, fantastic story. It has since become NASA's most licensed technology today.
Mat Kaplan: No kidding.
Dan Lockney: 40 plus different companies using it.
Mat Kaplan: I don't know that we will cover a more impressive bit of technology transfer today, or one that maybe, who knows, in the last year has saved more lives. Absolutely fascinating.
Dan Lockney: Don't forget, I did mention that escalator thing.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, of course.
Dan Lockney: [inaudible 00:13:00].
Mat Kaplan: Hey, that's pretty significant though. Speaking of both JPL and the pandemic, as people begin to hear this program, it will have been just about two weeks since we saw Perseverance, that spectacular seven minutes of terror down to the surface of Mars. Had it not been for the pandemic, I'd probably have been there at Von Karman auditorium, instead I was at home. That was okay, it was still thrilling. And then a couple of days later, we got the release of the maybe, and I've said this to a number of people, maybe the most thrilling piece of video that I have seen since Apollo 11. Since I'm old and can remember that, I guess I shouldn't have been, but I was surprised to see that the ability to get that video of perseverance actually getting down to the surface of Mars, setting foot on Mars was also thanks to technology transfer, to spinoff technology.
Dan Lockney: Yeah. It's also interesting that we've got this ability to send this awesome video at these high data rates, but NASA has been doing this type of, well, let's call it remote work for years.
Mat Kaplan: The most remote.
Dan Lockney: We're all getting used to it these days, sitting in our homes, talking into these computers, but NASA's been doing this type of remote work for let's say decades. It also contributes to things like telemedicine, which was the ability for us to keep our astronauts safe and diagnosed and healthy from 200 miles away. That same ability and type of communication is, we're all doing it every day from our very homes.
Dan Lockney: So yeah, it's phenomenal, not just the data rates and the video quality and the video of the Mars landing, but all the technologies on the Mars rovers, and building on decades of the Planetary exploration experience. I will add though, I'm probably the least rewarding person to talk to, the least rewarding NASA person to talk to about the excitement of the space missions. I see that video, and I'm like, "That's really neat," but because of the line of work I'm in, it's "But what else can it do?"
Mat Kaplan: That's okay. We talk to those other people all the time. This is of course exactly the angle that I was hoping to hear about from you. That's the kind of thinking that we want to hear about. I guess there is a circuit board, and some of the technology that went into the creation of this kind of circuit board. I mean, I read about the company that is making use of this, Tempo Automation.
Dan Lockney: It's been up at nasa.gov. You can find all of this content.
Mat Kaplan: There's so much more. In fact, there's a graphic in Spinoff 21 that goes across two pages. Long, skinny graphic that describes other technologies developed for Mars that are finding use back here on Earth. I want to bring up at least one more, and you are welcome to bring up others. Honeybee Robotics, a company that we know really well, they're all friends of ours at the Planetary Society. They have worked on a drill that has also just reached Mars as part of the Perseverance rover, and is something that, I guess, also relied on some of these technologies?
Dan Lockney: Yeah. So Honeybee has been working with NASA and JPL on development of instrument tools and testing equipment for Mars missions for a long time. The interesting thing about this one, I'll describe it, the tool, first though. It's essentially a plug cutter. So, instead of a drill where you drill a hole into something, you drill a circular shape around a plug or a little a piece that would stick up, then would pop out of core sample. Then what you do on earth is you jam a screwdriver into it usually, pop the thing out, and then you've got a jagged edge. And there's also potentially the introduction contaminants, but not the biggest problem here on Earth, because you can just take another one. But with our Mars sample, we want to avoid contamination and we want the cleanest possible cut we could get.
Dan Lockney: So the Honeybee [inaudible 00:17:21] retrieval tool has a little piece on the bottom of it that allows us to get a clean edge on the plug that we're cutting out, so interesting in its own way. The cool part though, the phenomenal part though, is why we want a clean sample versus, what we usually do is pulverize it on-site and take a look at the components, and send that information back. We want this clean, pure sample because this is the time ever that we're having Mars samples returned to Earth, which is phenomenal. We've sent rovers to the red planet, and we've sent spacecraft to the red planet for a while now. Nothing's ever come back. This is going to be a clean core sample that's returning. I'll admit that does get me kind of excited.
Mat Kaplan: The cleanest ever. I mean, everything that's gone into this, those tubes, the cleanest things humans have ever created, but you got to get the samples into them. And really, there's so much that it's just fascinating to see how these technologies work in Spinoff 21. The way this one, yeah, breaks off this core so it can lift it out is fascinating.
Dan Lockney: It's cool. So there's a lot of other technology that went into this Perseverance rover. As you mentioned, we've got a whole spread in the book. We've also got, this most recent mission builds upon decades of other missions. We've got contaminant detection technology for steering these rovers around has also contributed to the development of hospital robots for pharmaceutical delivery. The technology could improve self-driving cars, low-maintenance wind turbines, medical advancements, new instruments and materials for geological surveys here on Earth. The airbag material for the earlier Mars missions did not lead to the development of car airbags, but that woven material was used in things like ballistic protection and the development of high-pressure canisters.
Dan Lockney: As you mentioned, the video quality, the improvement in electronics, remote work. You talk about remote work. There's so many Mars technologies that will then have the ability to influence and improve our lives here on Earth.
Mat Kaplan: A lot of us at the planetary side, and a lot of our members who think that exploring Mars is worthy for its own sake, but this, I hope, is reassuring to others out there who want to say, "Yeah, but what's in it for me?" Well, you're describing what's in it for us.
Dan Lockney: I'll tell you a fun older Mars-related robotics spinoff. The original team that was working on Rocky 7, which is this rover that predates Spirit and Opportunity. But that, the ability to steer and control something, a little robot, that same team that developed the precursor to Spirit and Opportunity later went on and formed a company called iRobot that makes this Roomba.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Sure. No kidding.
Dan Lockney: This robotic vacuum that runs around your house. And we claim through that qualified list of history, of lineage, we do claim the robotic vacuum as a spinoff of sorts.
Mat Kaplan: I like to talk about, I'm sure you've seen the movie, The Martian, where Mark Watney, Andy Weir's martian, brings the Sojourner rover, the first a rover on Mars back to his habitat, and it follows him around or roams around inside his habitat. Never thought of it, but yeah, if he put a vacuum cleaner on there, he'd have had a Roomba.
Dan Lockney: Pretty much.
Mat Kaplan: Is your head spinning? Well, don't slow down because I'll be back in moments with NASA's Dan Lockney and even more spinoffs. This is Planetary Radio.
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Mat Kaplan: Let me switch gears a little bit here. The first time I ever heard of fuel cells, had no idea what they were as a kid, but I heard about them in connection with, I forget whether it was Gemini or Apollo that first used them. Now, of course, we've got cars that I can see on the California freeways that are running on fuel cells. One of the entries in Spinoff 21 talked about improved fuel cells, which are down at the bottom of the ocean?
Dan Lockney: Yeah. The interesting thing with this one is it dates back to the space shuttle and the space shuttle fuel cells. Some engineers at Johnson Space Center, Houston, replaced a mechanical component in our fuel cells with a passive nozzle. The advantage was, mechanical components have a tendency to be failure points and break. So we reduced that problem. Also, when you've got a mechanical component and you require electricity to run it, or fuel to run it, you're a drag on the fuel you're trying to develop. So if the machine has to run itself also, that reduces its efficiency. So we developed this technique for making more efficient, more reliable fuel cells, and we found applications for them in deep-sea drilling into wells, and the way they used to run power lines for these things was above water.
Dan Lockney: And you can imagine just as any time you run an extension cord to someplace, you're introducing some risk there, especially a lawnmower perhaps. So we had these lines that were going across the water, and they had the tendency to create problems. So putting them underneath the water actually reduced the opportunities for them to be damaged. Additionally, we've got these underwater fuel cells, and they can serve as charging ports, much like your Roomba charging port. They can serve as charging ports for underwater robots that are patrolling and working the well.
Mat Kaplan: It just goes on and on. You got to talk about one, that came out of the Kennedy Space Center, another brilliant NASA engineer named Jackie Quinn, who had an idea that, I guess, she began to work with when she grabbed some drinking straws from the employee cafeteria?
Dan Lockney: Jackie Quinn is one of our nation's treasures. She's in the Inventors Hall of Fame. She has made some incredible advancements. So Kennedy Space Center, where we do all our space launches, launch and space is a heavy industrial application, and it has the potential to create some contaminants. There's fuel, and there's cleaning solvents. We've been working there for decades, but Kennedy Space Center also is a nature reserve. It's a wildlife preserve, and there are some species of birds that only live there. So we need to be really careful with this land, and preserve it at the same time we're doing these heavy industrial applications.
Dan Lockney: Jackie Quinn is one of our environmental engineers there, working on techniques and ways to make sure that we're good stewards of that land. She's developed groundwater decontaminant solutions that used to be, prior to the ventilator, used to be our most licensed, most prolific spinoff of all time, cleaning up [inaudible 00:25:18] sites around the country.
Dan Lockney: So recently, her newest advancement is this technique for removing solvents from water, not groundwater, just underneath rivers and such. The way she discovered it was plastic, specific certain plastics have the tendency and ability to absorb oils and other contaminants.
Dan Lockney: She had the idea again, while, as you mentioned, looking at a handful of drinking straws and thinking there ought to be a better use for these. She made essentially larger drinking straws, and developed these things called eco-spheres that are essentially plastic tubes that are hollow. You shove them into the ground, and they leech up all of the oil and contaminants in a, say, river, lake, pond bed, and become filled with these nasty oils and such, and then you pull them out, and you've essentially cleaned the water. It really is as simple as plastic and tubing, like a drinking straw. We've since licensed it to a company called Ecosphere.
Dan Lockney: They have sites all around the world at this point where they're deploying this technology. The last I talked to them, they were actually working on a Netflix special showing how their company became a startup and took this technology, and they're out cleaning the water. They have a great story to tell, and hopefully that actually gets aired. That'll be a neat story.
Mat Kaplan: There is a selfish angle to this for me, because I saw in Spinoff 21, that one of the pilot projects where they're using this technology is right here in my hometown, San Diego, the port of San Diego. I kayak out there, so thank you guys.
Dan Lockney: Sure. There's a there's a little creek in Maryland that I used to like to sail to, and it was this little out-of-the-way spot where we could drop anchor and go swimming. Since looked it up on an EPA website, and discovered that according to the rankings of A through F, like report card rankings, this little Creek had an F. We didn't realize it was sandwiched between two steel mills. And I'm hoping that because it's such a nice swimming spot that that also gets these Ecosphere decontaminant spheres. They seem so simple. The other neat thing about this company is when they deploy them all around the world, they train local folks how to unroll them, how to deploy them, and create jobs wherever they go. All around, nothing wrong with this story.
Mat Kaplan: And you make me think that this probably has applications, or could have applications because it's a fairly simple technology that, maybe in the third world, where there certainly are huge pollution problems, just like everywhere else around the world, that this might be something that could be adopted by people without a huge amount of training or sophistication.
Dan Lockney: Speaking of pollution, and also Kennedy Space Center, we're working on something else that is kind of neat, and it's not ready for spinoff yet, in that it's not yet a product that's available, but it's something that's being worked on. And it stems back to our desire for in-situ resource utilization. When we go to the moon, for example, we won't be able to bring all the construction materials we need in order to create a habitat. We're not going to ship up two by fours and tieback and all the material you need to make [inaudible 00:28:50]. So, if we can use as much material that we find on-site as possible, we will.
Dan Lockney: And one of the things we're looking at doing is creating, from the lunar regolith, the soil on the moon, bricks. But we need something to do to hold it together. We need adhesives, some sort of compound that we can work with. One of the things we're going to be generating there is plastic trash from food containers and just also anytime you unwrap something. We all have this experience, and you got plastic, you don't know what to do with it. If we could melt plastic or somehow change it, mix it with the regolith, and use that to form building bricks. That would be phenomenal.
Dan Lockney: We could make our lunar igloo, but in order to test that, we need to first do it here on Earth. At Kennedy Space Center, we're working with the Florida League of Cities to use two things that they haven't access of in Florida. First, plastic bottles, and second, sand. And if we can mix sand and plastic bottles together and create a building material, we could then use that here on Earth. But we're also discovering that we could build concrete and bricks. so what we're currently looking at doing is replacing sidewalks in Florida with a sand and recycled plastic bottle concoction.
Mat Kaplan: Okay. It strikes me that maybe that has some advantages in terms of climate change as well, because concrete is a major source of carbon pollution in the atmosphere. Fascinating. There's another kind of pollution, much more personal pollution. I think you know where I'm going. Tell us about Zorpads.
Dan Lockney: I'm glad you brought it up, somebody had to. One of the applications for this air-cleaning device is in shoe insole inserts. One of my favorite things to ask the astronauts who come back from The International Space Station, just because I don't think anyone asks them this is, what does it smell like? To a person, they always say, "You wish you could open a window." You can imagine.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah.
Dan Lockney: One of the beauties of space that we don't really talk about, and thankfully, apparently your nose gets congested when you're in a microgravity environment. But you can imagine people living nonstop in the same closed space forever. We got to clean the air. One of the ways that we do that is through this carbon fiber material. Same thing you'd find in your Brita filter or the same thing you'd find in your home air purifier, but an activated carbon filter.
Dan Lockney: And the way usually these things are made is you've got some sort of substrates, and for filtering you apply the carbon to it. So NASA worked with the company to test a material we're now using in space, that has become Zorpads, where the material itself is solid carbon filter, rather than adding it to the surface. One of the things it does, in addition to purifying the air, making it smell a little better, in space and in these closed environments of say a home, you've got a lot of off-gassing of materials. You've got glues, you've got paints, you've got plastics, you've got all these non-natural materials that... If you ever walk into a new building that's got that formaldehyde from the carpeting and the glue and [inaudible 00:32:13], your eyes start to burn. It's called sick building syndrome.
Dan Lockney: And interestingly, back in the 1970s, we first realized this. We built this Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. We built this simulated skylab, and the crews would walk into, and you would test, see what it's like to live in this little box for a little while. They would walk in and get headaches immediately. They go, "What's going on in here?" And we had this inventor, John Wolverton, who said, "It's my theory that plants clean the air, and the problem is that we've got all of this off-gassing. But if we introduce something simple, like a plant, it might absorb some of that material."
Dan Lockney: And you're telling me, "Yeah, we know plants clean the air." What I'm telling you is we didn't know that for certain until NASA discovered it, tested it in the 1970s. And it was actually a partnership with the American Houseplant Association to test and prove with definitive proof that plants will clean this stuff out of the air. So, two things that are interesting to me about this, in addition to that's just a cool story. One is it's not the leaves. It's largely the roots that clean the air.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, no kidding.
Dan Lockney: Who knew? Now everybody knows. The other thing that I found interesting about this is the current plants that you find for sale in your garden store, your big box hardware convenience store. Those weren't selected necessarily because they're the best for your lighting conditions. Those were chosen and down selected from the NASA research in the 1970s as the ones that clean the air the best. So you've got these common plants that live in your house, the rhododendron, the Norfolk pine, the different ferns. Probably look around my house plants, see if I can name another one. [inaudible 00:34:01] Those were chosen, selected, because they are the best at cleaning the air.
Mat Kaplan: Fascinating. Again, I keep using that word because it's so appropriate. We could go on and on. There are many, many other examples that we could talk about in Spinoff 21. And I want to get to the future because that's how this edition of Spinoff ends. But before we do that, are there any other standouts, ones that you would be disappointed if we didn't talk about them?
Dan Lockney: I have trouble picking a favorite. It's like asking a mother to pick her favorite, and unless you're my mother, it becomes very difficult to make that type of position. We have thousands of them. I tend to like the ones that are unexpected, that you wouldn't realize necessarily. So when you [inaudible 00:34:54] the future, there are certain things that we know we're going to get out of space exploration. In addition to, of course, the expanding of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. We're going to get advances in medical technologies. We're going to get newer, lighter composites and materials. We're going to get advances in energy storage and delivery systems, better batteries. We're going to have cleaner air. We're going to have cleaner water, all these things that we need to live in space.
Dan Lockney: It's the weird stuff that I find interesting, though. Things you wouldn't expect. Like I mentioned, the plants or the escalators, or the camera in your cellphone's NASA technology, or in infant formula. We did an experiment in growing algae as a food source for long-duration space flight, and discovered for the first time that the Omega-3, Omega-6 fatty acids are important to for development of the brain, the eyes and the spinal column, and all those important fatty tissues. We thought it existed only in fish. It turns out it comes from algae. We discovered that, and then we were since able, through that discovery, to synthesize it, produce it and incorporate it into a lot of different food materials. And previously it had been found in fish and human breast milk.
Dan Lockney: As a nutritional supplement, if you want to get it in, say, infant formula, before you realize it comes from the algae, you had to add fish to it. The choice was either miss this nutrient or have fishy baby food. Now NASA developed an understanding of this, the company that is adding Omega-3, Omega-6 fatty acids to all your groceries. There's one company, it's a multi-billion dollar corporation at this point. And any time you see "Now with Omega-6, Omega-3 added to it," unless it has a fish odor, it's NASA. It's that kind of weird, unexpected, no-fooling stuff that I find exciting.
Dan Lockney: You asked about the future. There's a couple things at the end of the Spinoff that I think are worth noting. There's some of the nerdy deep science stuff you'd expect us to be doing. But at Johnson Space Center, this just captures the imagination. A grip-assisted glove. So I'm thinking about Darth Vader, how he would pick people up by the throat. You don't want to do that with it, but you could, if you are [inaudible 00:37:15], I suppose, and Darth Vader. But the real cool application is for routine factory-type work where you're doing the same thing over and over again, or increasing just your grip. But it also has its medical applications with folks that maybe have lost strength in their hands through arthritis or some other condition.
Dan Lockney: We've also, at Kennedy Space Center, we're trying to grow plants for space for eating. So you mentioned Mark Watney and The Martian movie. Up until very recently, we were growing plants in space, but the astronauts weren't supposed to eat them. They were considered experiments. It was just two years ago, the first time they ate some lettuce that they grow in space. We're not farming yet, but we are developing at Kennedy, these cool giant gardens for how you can grow fruit and vegetables in space. And it's got applications here on Earth for things like those cool vertical walls that you see in buildings that, again, help with the off-gassing, or vertical vegetable gardens in dense areas. That's such a cool application.
Dan Lockney: And then another one we're working with that out of Ames Research Center in California is software traffic management for drones. [inaudible 00:38:29] out there and you can imagine, well, why would you need traffic management for drones? Well, there could be a bunch of them going different places, doing different things. And that's this weird version of the future that we're probably running into pretty soon. But right now, it's the stuff of science fiction.
Mat Kaplan: But not far off, maybe, from what we hear from places like Amazon. I love this stuff. You can probably tell. It seems you do too.
Dan Lockney: Yeah, I really do. I get fascinated. And again, I mentioned I'm not the most rewarding person from the NASA engineers to talk to. I was chatting with some folks who developed a technique with a low voltage, very little energy to vibrate the dust off of solar panels for Mars missions. You're relying on these solar panels, so if they get covered in dust and you can't get the sun to them, you run out of power. So the ability to keep these missions going even longer, delivering great science and sending back these great images is just phenomenal. And it's solving this problem that we've got, they're describing this to me and I'm thinking, "Could you put it on a car? You'd never have to wash a car again. Or put it on windows, you got a whole skyscraper. You run this thing through it and you have windows clean forever." And they're looking at me like, "You just don't get it." Yeah. I love this work. I love it.
Mat Kaplan: I'm just thinking of the conversation I had with... Actually it'll be airing next week, about InSight and how they're waiting for one of these dust devils to come along and get rid of that dust, as it used to happen with Spirit and Opportunity. Who knows? Maybe someday they'll just flick on the little vibrator, and they won't have to wait for the weather on Mars to be right for their spacecraft.
Mat Kaplan: Terrific stuff, Dan. I love it all. For those people out there, I think it's a tiny minority in the audience for this show who don't feel the romance, the wonder, the passion, beauty, enjoy the PB&J, as our boss says, of space exploration. They really ought to be able to look at the kind of stuff that you guys document and say, "You know what? This is a pretty good investment."
Dan Lockney: I would hope so. I would also add, since we're dealing with a tech-savvy audience here, that NASA has a large portfolio of technology available for people to use. We have over 1000 patents available for license. If you're a startup company, there's no upfront fee for licensing. If you're not a startup company, there's generally a nominal fee, just a couple of dollars, and it goes to the inventor. We're not recouping the costs for our missions. The taxpayers already paid for that. This is incentive for the inventors. And we have a free software portfolio. We have over 1000 codes that are available, for free, for the public to use and download. Software.nasa.gov. Technology.nasa.gov.
Dan Lockney: We are still inventing technology constantly. We're one of the most inventive organizations in the federal government, and it's available to you. So maybe you'd like to make the next spinoff.
Mat Kaplan: Give me those websites once again. And we will again, put those on the page.
Dan Lockney: The technology.nasa.gov is the parent page. You can find everything there. But the two subsets I mentioned are software.nasa.gov, and then of course, spinoff.nasa.gov.
Mat Kaplan: Dan, it has been a great pleasure. Thank you so much, once again, for taking us into the world of spinoffs, and congratulations on the publication of Spinoff 21. I highly recommended it. It ought to be a bestseller, except that it's free, and it's waiting out there for everybody to take a look at on the net. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing it with us.
Dan Lockney: Sure. Thanks, Mat. And thanks for having me. This was a lot of fun.
Mat Kaplan: Dan Lockney. He is the technology transfer program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC, and therefore oversees the publication of Spinoff, which has been happening since the 1970s. Spinoff 21, available right now on a computer or a device near you.
Mat Kaplan: Here comes Bruce, and What's Up. Time for What's Up on Planetary Radio. Here is the chief scientist of the Planetary Society, Bruce Betts. Any spinoffs, useful technologies, or innovations come out of LightSail?
Bruce Betts: Well, two things. One, the spacecraft does spin on occasion. Not a very good spinoff, and then not in the sense that you've just been discussing, but in the sense of feeding forward to future solar-sailing missions, our information that we're learning, we're working particularly with a near-Earth asteroid scout from NASA, and now solar cruiser. It's a feed-forward technology more than a spinoff.
Mat Kaplan: Sounds good to me. How about the night sky? Spin us a yarn.
Bruce Betts: Once upon a time, there was a planet named Mars, and it began to approach the glowing star that was its evil twin called Aldebaran in the land of Taurus. And nearby was a nursery where little baby stars, that weren't so little, were being born, called the Pleiades. And they're all in this... How's that yarn? Is it...
Mat Kaplan: Does this have a happy ending?
Bruce Betts: Yes. The happy ending is that if you go out in the evening in the next couple weeks, you can see Mars near Aldebaran, getting closer over the next week or two. And they both look very similar and reddish. And if you look on the other side of Mars, using binoculars is a great idea for this. Check out the Pleiades star cluster, where baby born stars are being born in their little nursery. Anyway, check out the Pleiades star cluster. And don't forget, Pleiades in Japanese are called Subaru, so that's why their symbol is stars. Pre-dawn. We're going to the pre-dawn. You just throw me with the yarn. I was thinking of knitting. It was weird. In the pre-dawn-
Mat Kaplan: But you did great. That was a nice little story.
Bruce Betts: We're finally picking up some planets in the pre-dawn, but they're still very low down to the horizon in the pre-dawn east. You've got bright Jupiter and Saturn above that looking yellowish, and you might be able to pick up Mercury near, and then eventually below, in the next few days, below Jupiter. But it's going to be tough. You want to use binoculars. Make sure the sun hasn't risen when you do that. Jupiter and Saturn will be visiting with us for the next several months, so say hi when you get a chance.
Bruce Betts: We move on to this week in space history. It was 1969 that the Apollo 9 mission was flown into Earth orbit with the first flight of the lunar module flying free, and including our planetary defense ally, Rusty Schweickart. It was good. Led to other stuff. I don't know if you've heard of the Apollo program, Mat?
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, yeah. That was Paul McCartney's band after Wings, wasn't it?
Bruce Betts: No. I believe they were called Voyager in 1979. Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter and through the Jupiter system, giving us amazing imagery of the system. Okay. We move on before we can think of any more bad jokes, although I'm sure you'll try. We move on to Random Space Fact. So, right now, I mentioned this recently, there are eight working orbiters at Mars, but there are also eight non-working orbiters at Mars. At least probably. They're not communicating, but probably eight. So it's eight and eight right now in terms of working, non-working orbiters at Mars.
Mat Kaplan: I'll be darned. I had no idea. So as far as we know, eight that are still above the red planet.
Bruce Betts: Yes. Viking 1 & 2 orbiters, Mariner 9, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars, 2, 3, and 5, and Phobos 2, not in chronological order.
Mat Kaplan: I'll be gosh darned. Okay. Onto the contest.
Bruce Betts: Still stuck on "gosh darned." I asked you in a slightly tricky, but not that tricky way, how many and which space agencies had their first Mars orbiter reach Mars and operate in Mars orbit. How did we do Mat?
Mat Kaplan: This threw some people. We got two agencies. We got four agencies. But, Bruce, wily quizmaster that he is, was looking for a different number. How many did you want, and which agencies were you thinking of?
Bruce Betts: I wanted Pi, rounded to the nearest integer. That'd be three. Three, which were the recent United Arab Emirates, and the European Space Agency, and the Indian Space Research organization. But I'm sure we threw people, some on for example, China, because China's first orbiter on the Phobos Russian, was on the Russian Phobos sample return mission, which failed in Earth orbit, and that was Yinghuo-1. Apologize for the pronunciation. So their first attempt to an orbiter failed, so those are the three. But also you may wonder about the US. I don't know, but Mariner 8 was actually the first attempt, and its twin craft, Mariner 9, launched in the same opportunity and succeeded, but Mariner 8 failed.
Mat Kaplan: Our port Laureate, Dave Fairchild, in Kansas. He restated this correct answer. Inverse of course, [ISA 00:48:29] was the first to get an orbiter, first try, around the planet Mars. That's sitting up there in the sky. India was second to the list, as you can see. And now we've had another, that is M-B-R-S-C, which is the UAE Space Agency. Thank you, Dave.
Mat Kaplan: We also, from Chris Mills in Virginia. He brought to our attention that old Teddy Roosevelt quote about "Giving credit to those who fail again and again, but keep getting back up and trying again." And then Chris says, "Or maybe that was Rocky."
Bruce Betts: That's funny. That's exactly what I was going to say.
Mat Kaplan: And here is our winner. Long time listener, first time winner. Congratulations, Andreas Ospina in Columbia, down in South America, of course, who said, "Yeah, three space agencies, first Mars orbiters with successful outcomes," and he got them all correct. Andreas, It's been a long wait, I know. I hope it was worthwhile. You are going to be receiving your own Planetary Society rubber asteroid. So yeah, again, congratulations.
Bruce Betts: Most excellent. Moving on to this week's question. Stick with me here. Of the spacecraft which used Venus for a gravity assist maneuver, which went farthest outwards in the solar system? So they used Venus for gravity assist, which of those went farthest out in the solar system? Go to planetary.org/radiocontest.
Mat Kaplan: Okay, People. You've got this one, right? You have until Wednesday, March 10th at 8:00 AM Pacific time to get us the answer for this one. We will have for the winner, chosen by random.org, of course, a Planetary Society rubber asteroid, but also a pretty cool new book for kids from Random House Books for Young Readers. It is The Lion of Mars by the award-winning bestselling children's author, Jennifer Holm. It's targeting grades three to seven, although I think, yeah, right up through eight. Heck, I read it. I enjoyed it. It's about a kid who grows up in basically a colony on Mars, and it's pretty fun to read. That's it. I think we're done.
Bruce Betts: All right, everybody. Go out there, look up at the night sky and think about whether you should circle multiple times before lying down. Thank you. Good night.
Mat Kaplan: Yet another spinoff from the chief scientist of the Planetary Society. That's Bruce Betts, who joins us every week here for What's Up? Planetary Radio is produced by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by its innovative members. Mark Hilverda is our associate producer, Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Peter Schlosser. Ad astra.