Over 100 years, NASA's top 5 tech advances

Over 100 years, NASA's top 5 tech advances

NASA, and its predecessor NACA, helped develop computer chips, satellite communications and safer flight

One hundred years ago this month, Congress established the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), launching the nation into a time of advancing aeronautics and eventually space exploration.

A century after the creation of NAC, which later expanded to become NASA, that initial effort has brought advances in not only in space exploration but also in the technologies used in flight, computers and communications.

"Part of what have been so remarkable about NACA and NASA were their ability to solve problems," said Bill Barry, NASA's chief historian. "The engineering approach that they took has been dramatically successful ... They have been able to apply a disciplined engineering approach to technologies that proliferated throughout industry and society. It has had effect in little ways and also in very big ways that today we take for granted."

Earlier this month, NASA celebrated the past 100 years and its achievements in flight, rockets, computers, and exploration.

NACA was formed in March 1915. With no paid staff and a tiny budget, it was far from the world-renowned agency that NASA has become. Despite its size, NACA, during and after World War II, is credited with developing or helping to develop retractable landing gear, jet engine compressors and turbines, and engine cowlings

In the 1950s, when the U.S. turned its attention to space exploration and getting to the moon, NACA, which had focused its research on flight, transitioned into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, moving its focus to space flight.

Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, was a NACA employee who transitioned over to NASA.

NASA expanded, absorbing the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and parts of the U.S. Army's Ballistic Missile Agency under its umbrella.

"We continue to see the NACA's influence in many areas of our work ..., " said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "Just as the NACA did in 1915, NASA today finds solutions to challenges facing the aerospace community that help the nation reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind. I'm proud of our heritage and the innovative work NASA continues to do in aeronautics."

Over the course of the past century, NACA and NASA have been at the heart of significant innovation. (No, NASA did not invent Tang. Sorry to burst that bubble.) The agency's technologies have changed the way we do business, communicate and compute.

NASA's historian explained what can be considered the top five technologies that NASA -- and NACA -- developed or helped develop.

The integrated circuit

The integrated circuit, better known as a computer chip, can be found in everything from laptops to cars, iPhones and smart appliances.

NASA did not invent the integrated circuit, but the agency's engineers advanced the work on it.

"Often times the space program gets credit for the integrated circuit," Barry told Computerworld. "I think that's a little overblown. The military and others had been working on it for some time, but NASA pushed it forward dramatically."

NASA helped move the development of the computer chip along because engineers were pushing to get the Apollo mission moving. Apollo, which landed 12 astronauts on the moon between 1969 and 1972, needed a guidance computer.

It was important that the guidance system that was going into space be as lightweight as possible. The less weight, the less fuel and power NASA would need to launch everything into space. That meant rethinking the guidance system and the integrated circuits. Charles Stark Draper, an engineer and scientist at MIT, led the research into making the circuit lighter and work better.

"They had to find a way to make it lighter and make it reprogrammable and make an interface that the astronauts could use," explained Barry. "The Apollo program pushed forward the limits on size and interface. There were a lot of advances in the Apollo guidance computer."

While Draper is famous for his contribution to the Apollo circuits, there was a group of women who worked at New England textile mills who also deserve some of the credit.

"For the memory on the computer, a lot of it was actually hardwired," said Barry. "It was made out of wire. They built in certain commands and a lot of software was really hardware because it was wired in. The core memory was literally [made of] wires. They had seamstresses from the mill factories in Lowell, Mass., who could sew the core of the computer together. It was called Rope Core Memory."

Communication satellites

Another major technology advance that can be attributed to NASA are today's communication satellites.

"One of the most critical [technologies] was communication satellites," said Barry. "If you were in Timbuktu, we could sit on the phone and talk because of communication satellites. The connectivity of the whole world is commonly driven by satellites."

In the early days of attempting to send long-distance communications, the main idea was to bounce radio signals off something in orbit, Barry said. In the early 1960s, NASA, working with industry, ran a series of tests using giant Mylar balloons, called Echo satellites. With Project Echo, NASA was able to bounce radio signals off the balloons.

It worked, but it wasn't a fool-proof communication method. "You'd inflate this big silver balloon and send a radio signal at it," Barry said. "The balloons didn't stay perfectly round. They had a drag. You had to depend on having the balloon where you needed it when you needed it. But that was sort of the first attempt that proved you could send signals to space."

After Project Echo, NASA quickly shifted focus to putting satellites into orbit that could collect signals from the ground and then resend them.

"Bell Labs and the Hughes Corp. collaborated on that," added Barry. "Banking, business transactions, the whole idea of being able to see TV signals from around the world, long distance radio communications -- all comes from advances in communication satellites."

Airplane design

With NACA early research with wind tunnels, the shape and function of airplanes changed dramatically, evolving from double-winged biplanes to the single wing planes used today.

"NACA really defined the airplane as we know it," according to Barry. "In 1915, most planes were biplanes. Engineers building the planes assumed the wings had to be thin, and to reinforce them they needed wires for these skinny double wings. Then NACA, with its wind tunnel work, found that a thicker [single] wing actually worked better."

NACA engineers found that they could put structure and support inside the wing.

"Those design characteristics that we take for granted were all proven out by NACA," Barry said. "NACA had a critical wind tunnel -- the Variable Density Tunnel at Langley in Virginia. It was radically different. Nobody had done anything like that before, and it laid the groundwork for wings and wing shapes. All these things proven by the NACA were the best way to do things."

Airplane deicing

"Back in the '30s and into the beginning of the 1940s, the issue of ice on wings was a mystery," said Barry. "Some planes would fly through clouds and not get any ice on them. Others would fly through clouds, get ice on them and fall out of the sky.

"It was difficult to study because if you sent a plane up it might get ice on it and crash," he added. "It was a real big problem and an unpredictable problem at the time."

That made flying a dodgy proposition -- enough so that airplane owners had arrangements with the railroad companies to transport their passengers by train if it was a cloudy day.

To better study the icing issue, NACA built special wind tunnels designed to put ice on planes. One of the best still exists at the Glenn Research Center in Ohio.

NASA scientists studied what kind of clouds and temperatures would create ice on planes, and created deicing fluid and the means to make it seep out of the airplane wings to keep the ice off them.

"But the most successful [advance] was to move hot air from the engines onto the wings to keep them from icing up," added Barry. "The heated surface is the most widely used one now. Without this, the airline industry, as we now know it, probably wouldn't exist. They figured out what caused ice and how to avoid it and how to fly through these icing clouds safely."

Weather satellites

"In terms of impact on humanity, probably weather satellites are another major tech advance," said Barry. "In the old days, weather clobbered us without any warning. Today, we may not know if we're getting two inches or six inches of snow, but we definitely know when a storm is coming."

NASA played a big role in developing weather satellites and still consults on them today.

"The original technology was pushed by NASA and we tested out the technology," added Barry. "The original weather satellites were launched by NASA. The folks at the Goddard Space Flight Center did a lot of the early work on weather satellites."

With all of these five technologies, NASA -- or NACA -- played significant roles in their creation or advancement. "With some of those changes, if NASA hadn't existed, somebody would probably have figure it out eventually, but the speed with which these things have happened is thanks to NASA and NACA."

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