NASA looks to a new generation of innovation

Space agency expects big technology leaps in robotics and energy in effort to build next generation spacecraft

As NASA celebrates the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch, the agency is also looking ahead to the next chapter in space exploration.

Officials at NASA also say they're eager to find out what innovative technology will emerge from its effort to build a next generation of spacecraft designed to fly humans to the moon, to asteroids and on to Mars.

"Just as exciting as looking back [at the shuttle history] is looking into the future [to see] what will replace the shuttle," said Dan Lockney, a program specialist with NASA.

"We're investing heavily in the game changing technologies that will lead to the next generation of NASA's space missions," he said. "With the retirement of the shuttle we'll develop technologies that will get us even further into space than the space shuttles ever [could]. It'll be interesting to see what innovations that will bring."

Space shuttle Columbia was the first shuttle to launch into space on April 12, 1981, ushering in a new era of space flight.

The fleet of reusable space vehicles -- which included Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour -- was designed to go into space and then return to Earth like giant gliders.

Lockney noted that the space shuttle program is responsible for the creation of a lot of innovative technology.

For example, engineers working at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., developed Video Image Stabilization and Registration, or VISAR, technology, which is used to stabilize the video taken to determine whether the craft sustained any damage during turbulent liftoffs.

The VISAR technology was also used by the U.S. military during the 2003 effort to track down Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, according to Lockney. The military used VISAR to clarify footage taken of Hussein while he was in hiding. The footage, shot from a soldier's rifle scope camera, was subsequently used to identify Hussein.

"That's when they knew they'd found him," said Lockney. "That's NASA technology."

Another innovation, he noted, resulted from the development of the explosive devices used to separate the solid rocket boosters from the shuttle after launch. The technology used to eject rocket boosters was adapted to create a tool that now helps rescue personnel free people from cars wrecked in accidents. The Lifeshear cutters are lighter and less expensive than traditional Jaws of Life, Lockney said.

The LED lights developed for use during plant growth experiments onboard the shuttles are now also used in hospitals to relieve patients suffering from pain caused by cancer-fighting treatments.

While Lockney loves to talk about such past innovation, he's most eager to see is what's coming down the road.

"As NASA continues to investigate new technologies, there will be a lot of unexpected innovation," he said. "We'll be building on not just 30 years of the shuttle, but 50 years of NASA. We expect a lot more innovation."

The program specialist said he expects to see NASA-based advancements used to improve energy efficiency and energy creation.

"You can't take all the energy you need into space with you, so we'll have to create new energies," Lockney said.

"On the longer space missions that are being considered, astronauts will need to live in an environment that is as close to self-sustaining as possible. They'll need to recycle their own oxygen and their own water. They'll need a lightweight, renewable energy resource. You can't run a power cord up into space for a couple of months," he added.

The NASA engineers working on next generation projects are likely to be extremely focused on robotics.

The space agency has talked of sending robots to build human outposts on, say, the moon or Mars before astronauts arrive for extended stays.

Lockney noted that he expects to see new technology that will make robots smart and capable enough to do grueling, intricate work while the nearest controlling human is on another planet.

In addition, he said, "There will be new and lighter materials. We'll have advances as we go farther and father into space. We'll have greater understanding of bone and muscle loss, which could help us study aging.

"What I'm really looking forward to most," he added, "are the new technologies we don't even know we need yet."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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