It’s Not Just Tang

NASA’s widespread influence on everyday design

[Ed. note: On this day 56 years ago, NASA began its operations. Today we bring you a roundup of some familiar objects and products whose design is the direct result of space research.]

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California is where cutting-edge aircraft are designed and tested. It was there that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 in 1947. In the 1960s, X-15 pilots flew one of history’s first rocket planes from the lakebed at Edwards to the edge of space. In the mid 1970s, engineers covered a van in pieces of aluminum, creating a rectangular metal box on wheels, which they drove around the base to test aerodynamics. The intel they gathered from this process didn’t all go into space travel; it was a giant leap for fuel efficiency in standard trucks.

The impetus for this earth-relevant research came in 1973 when Edwin J. Saltzman, an engineer at Armstrong, was nearly knocked off his bike by the air currents off a passing truck. As a truck barrels down the road, it compresses the air in front of it like a bulldozer, pushing it unevenly down the sides of the vehicles before the wake whips out behind it. It’s an airflow pattern that affects not only other vehicles around the truck but the truck itself; a 1975 study found that trucks put about half their horsepower into overcoming aerodynamic drag.

After the bicycle incident, Saltzman and his colleagues sought to alter the design of trucks to make them more aerodynamic. To do this, they turned to their research on the space shuttle, which was at the time still under development. Beginning with the boxy, aluminum-covered van, the engineers obtained a baseline for understanding drag. From there, they modified the vehicle’s shape, rounding the front corners, the bottom and top edges, and sealing the underbelly and wheel wells. The resulting truck design had 50 percent less drag, making it 15 and 25 percent more fuel economic. These NASA-designed trucks are the ones we see on the roads today. They are among thousands of everyday objects whose shape and function were informed by space shuttle research.

In recreational apparel, too, there are the marks of the space age. Comfort Products in Aspen, Colorado, designs specialty footwear for outdoor sports, and in the 1970s they borrowed a piece of spacesuit design from NASA: the wiring that enables temperature control inside a spacesuit during moon walks. Comfort Products took this technology and put it on a smaller scale, designing discreet in-boot heating units that keep the wearer’s feet toasty on a frigid mountaintop in a snow storm. The way hard-sided ski boots move was also influenced by NASA’s lunar space suits. Both needed to bend and flex without compromising structural integrity. In the early 1980s, the Raichle Flexon ski boot was released, featuring a corrugated configuration that mimicked space suit design, giving the boot an aura of advanced technology that extreme athletes were after.

Another, less specialized space-aged footwear design reached the market in 2002: the Modellista Footwear company used the same Tempur material that’s in Tempur-Pedic mattresses in shoes. Tempur was originally developed by NASA scientists at the Ames Research Center in the 1970s to cushion and support astronauts during launches. The material is composed of billions of viscoelastic spherical cells, making it a solid with liquid properties that conforms to the body according to heat and pressure. In a shoe, this means exceptional comfort and support.

Another wearable NASA-inspired technology comes from SpeedoUSA. It turns out swimmers and spacecraft reentering the atmosphere have something in common: both have to contend with drag. When it comes to spacecraft, engineers use wind tunnels to understand the fluid dynamics that cause that drag and uncover things like the boundary layer, the phenomenon wherein a thin layer of air builds up around the vehicle, slowing it down.

Engineers with SpeedoUSA took that same approach when studying swimmers. Fluid dynamics, it turns out, are the same for a body moving through water as they are for a body moving through the atmosphere. Swimmers are also affected by a boundary layer in the form of a nearly inch-thick wall that imparts enough drag on a body to make a difference between first and last place when that body is swimming at an Olympic level.

Seeking to decrease the drag, SpeedoUSA worked with NASA shortly before the 2004 Olympics to develop a space-age swimsuit. The result of this partnership was LZR Racer, the suit that Michael Phelps wore at that year’s games. The LZR Racer is made of water-repelling fabric, and the NASA-influenced design is in the details. It has bonded seams rather than sewn seams and a hidden, integrated zipper. The result is a suit with almost 25 percent less drag on a body moving through the water.

Of course, there are large-scale applications of NASA technology too, though not ones that we might expect. There are less obvious aspects of spaceflight than the aerodynamics of a spacecraft or an astronaut’s comfort. Before astronauts can leave the Earth their rockets need to be assembled, and this has yielded some interesting technology. In the 1960s, engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre used air flotation technology to move segments of the mammoth Saturn V rocket. That same technology was incorporated into Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium, turning it a convertible space.

Of the Aloha Stadium’s 50,000 seats, 28,000 are in sections that can be repositioned to suit a specific event; the seating around a rectangular football field can be moved into a square to accommodate a baseball game. The secret is space-age air flotation technology. Under all four three-million pound movable stadium sections are twenty-six Rolair transporters. These doughnut shaped diaphragms are inflated, lifting the stadium sections about an inch off the ground while some air escapes the system to create a layer of air on which that stadium section “floats.” Once floating, it takes just a single operator a half an hour to move an entire section of the stadium.

Of course, the most apparent place where aerospace design has touched our daily lives is in commercial aviation, where research into the science of drag has helped make our flights a little bit quicker. If you’ve ever wondered why the wingtips of many jets flip up at the ends, NASA has your answer. Those features are called winglets, and they’re the result of a joint research project between NASA, the US Air Force, and aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

Airplanes weighing thousands of pounds can fly because of lift, the result of a pressure difference between the air moving over and under the wings. The air that generates lift also creates drag. As air moving under the wing flows upwards at the edge of the wingtip it creates a vortex of spinning air, producing a phenomenon called induced drag.

Eliminating drag is a way to make planes more fuel efficient. When the United States was facing an oil crisis in the 1970s, NASA engineer Richard Whitcomb looked at breaking up those wingtip vortices to reduce drag and increase the airplane’s overall fuel efficiency. This research question led to NASA engineers fitting nine-foot tall winglets on its KC-135 aircraft. When the modified plane took to the skies it was immediately obvious that the design met Whitcomb’s criteria, and the Blended Winglet evolved from these initial tests.

While NASA can’t breakup the vortices of security lines and flight delays, there are travel headaches we don’t even know we’re being spared thanks to the ingenuity of the agency’s engineers. Some of the greatest aspects of living in the space age are the ones that improve our lives on Earth.

Illustrations by Clay Rodery

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