Teacher Tools for the High Frontier: Technology Samples

Your friendly Lunar Librarian has long been an early adopter of technology, and is a maven of useful advanced technologies. Flexible Solar cells? Great stuff that. Aerogel? That’s the shizzle right there.

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One of my favorite tools for educational outreach is a Space Blanket. I use this to explain the importance of high technology industry and why we do R&D. I ask if they have a roll of aluminium foil in their kitchen, and explain that it is formed by running the aluminum through rollers that squeeze it into a sheet. Low tech, but reasonably effective. The Space Blanket, on the other hand, is made using ion sputtering and vapor -phase deposition, allowing the creation of a layer of aluminum that may be only tens of atoms thick as compared with hundreds or thousands for aluminum foil. It’s a more efficient way of using the aluminum, and allows for large numbers of Space Blankets to be manufactured at a reasonable price. We then wrap up the kids like burritos to demonstrate the effect of having 85% of the body’s IR thermal emission reflected back to the body by the aluminum. The best was at one event where Raytheon had an IR camera on display so we could show the differences between exposed skin and the blanket. These can be found at pretty much any sporting goods store.

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Back when I was working as program support for the NASA Academy, we had yet another briefing at NASA HQ, and at one point they were talking about Mars, so I got bored and excused myself to go stretch my legs and visit the facilities. The next room over was under construction, and in a pile of construction debris I spotted several examples of aerogel that had been sent to HQ by JPL as part of the Stardust mission. I asked the secretary outside about them, no one seemed to know anything, so I grabbed them for use by the RAs at the Academy. One of the examples quickly crumbled under frequent handling but I did manage to keep one example whole, at least the year that I was there. I also kept one tiny sample for myself, a cube less than 1cm on a side, that I knew I was going to need for later outreach work. It has proven quite useful, as it is one of the materials that is interesting to just about everyone. The kids at the last International Space Settlement Design Competition were absolutely fascinated by it.

The best way to describe it is cotton candy sand. Just like they melt the sugar and then spin it out into a low-density fibrous material, they take a silicate material (e.g. sand) and turn it into a material that is mostly air (99.8%). It is in the Guinness Book of World Records (though not online) as the lightest solid on Earth, and you could lift a block as big as a table with one finger. But that’s not what’s cool about it. What’s cool is the material’s thermal properties. Researchers have been able to make a flexible version for jackets and boot inserts that can be used by mountain climbers and Antarctic workers. (more) An obvious application in space is as insulation in Moon boots for folks who have to work in the everdark craters at the Lunar poles. Samples are available from United Nuclear. Additionally, Clark Lindsey over at Hobbyspace.com directs us to the really cool “Kitchen Experiments with Aerogel”. Hobbyspace itself is a great teacher resource as well.

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Also available are pieces of Space Shuttle Tile material, which are also quite popular. It has the same heritage as the aerogel from a materials perspective. The available pieces are excess from when the tiles were first manufactured back in the 70s. Given the fragility of the material, I’m not surprised if they had a lot of broken pieces while figuring out how to get it right. I recommend against handling of the samples, as they break quite easily, and my sample used for handling is in small pieces. It highlights why flight controllers are so concerned about the tiles and their integrity.

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These are the main examples that I use for our public outreach displays. Periodically I’ll get in touch with NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program and request a bunch of hard copies of their Spinoff magazine to distribute. NASA’s been publishing Spinoff for several decades, and has recently put all of the back issues online. This provides a great resource for those looking to discover more about how technologies developed for the needs of the space program have also found application in other areas. There are many people who say that funding a space program for the spinoffs is a waste, or that these advances would have come about anyway through research in other, non-space areas. Maybe, maybe not. The point is that we fund space programs for space reasons. Sometimes, though, we figure out a better way of doing things, like fly-by-wire technology, and decide that it has application beyond the space field. We didn’t go to the Moon so that you could have a computer chip in your car to help it run better. You have a computer chip in your car to help it run better because we went to the Moon.

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Also published by NASA is their monthly Tech Briefs. This is a wonderful, real-time glimpse at many of the bleeding-edge technologies that are being worked on through the space program. Library-wise I think it should definitely be in the library of every trade and technical school. As far as high-schools go, I think it’s a tougher call, and whether the educational staff at the school can handle the questions that would come up, at least as far as guiding the students to the answers. It’s primary target markets are the technology and manufacturing sectors, so it’s written at a very high level. Still, I think that bright and/or motivated high school-level students would be able to profit from it.

Still on spinoffs, a rather popular title over in the Lunar Library is from Scientific American and entitled Inventions from Outer Space: Everyday Uses for NASA Technology”. From 2000, it’s sort of like a Best Of… of the NASA Spinoff magazine. One picture that caught my eye is of a young lady in a swimsuit covered in riblets, one of the many recent technologies that is changing competitive swimming as watchers of the recent Beijing Olympics well know. Your local library probably has a copy, and they’re cheap over at Amazon.

In a similar vein, the European Space Agency published “Down to Earth: Everyday Uses for European Space Technology”. It’s available as a free pdf download through the link. They’ve also made available their brochure “Spinoff Successes” (pdf). For some reason there are a lot of broken links in that part of ESA’s web domain, which just goes to show you that technology is tough to take care of properly, even down here on Earth.

For still more on spinoffs, one of the International Space University Team Projects considered “Technology Transfer: Bridging Space and Society”

Spinoffs are no reason to pursue a space industry, but they sure are some nice side-benefits of having one. I think the real lesson to be learned is the inter-relatedness of the disciplines involved in creating these technologies. I got to analyze a decade’s worth of technology projects for GSFC TTO while I was working program support at the 2002 Goddard NASA Academy, and it is truly fascinating stuff. The importance of cultivating and nurturing not only our high technology industries, but also the talent pool that will be working in those industries, cannot be overstated as a national priority in the modern global marketplace.

Space is one of the few industries in which the U.S. retains a commercial competitive advantage, and it should be pursued vigourously lest we let slip away that one also. What are the goods and services that we will be selling to the rest of the world in 20-30 years when the Millenial generation starts coming into its own and taking their turn at guiding our nation through the uncertain shoals of tomorrow?

Still to come: ISS, Big Rocks from Space, space navigation, and more!

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