Shuttle technology gets new spin on Earth

  • Article by: ERIN MEYER , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2012 - 5:42 PM

Lessons from the shuttle program now being applied to help trees and consumers.

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NASA’s space shuttle program may be grounded, but technology used to explore the solar system is making history in ways that may surprise you.

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NASA's space shuttle program may be grounded, but technology used to explore the solar system is making history in ways that may surprise you. Think baby formula. Think bras. But first think trees.

Aeronautic engineers and arborists gathered last week in a patch of woods at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., to figure out where trees are weakest and what makes them fall. "This simply had never been done ever, period," NASA's Matt Melis said of the joint effort. "We are making history."

After stripping the bark from a handful of specimens infested by emerald ash borers, scientists painted the trunks white with black dots. One at a time, the scientists trained two high-tech, digital-imaging cameras on each, creating a 3-D computer image of the tree before arborists pulled them down.

By measuring the movement of each dot as pressure built on the tree, scientists could pinpoint areas of weakness -- a great tool in helping experts determine risk assessment about how and where a tree might come down. Scientists from France, England and Germany also participated.

It is just one of the most recent uses of NASA science -- the agency holds 907 patents -- to spin off scientific applications and consumer products. These efforts include developing a nutrient contained in most baby formula, strengthening the durability of bras, and advances in crime scene detection.

NASA experiments also have been used to develop blue blocking sunglasses and cellphone cameras. "Our primary goal is to create innovative approaches to technology transfer that benefit the American people," said Dan Lockney, who works for NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist in Washington, D.C.

After decades of space exploration, NASA is charting a new course in the wake of budget cuts and a decision last year by the Obama administration to quash plans to send a manned spacecraft to Mars. The data being collected might not constitute a "giant step for mankind." But it does have the potential to change the world of tree care by preventing the needless destruction of trees that are not likely to come crashing down on a house, car or person, said Gary Watson, senior research scientist at the arboretum. "Too many trees get taken down. Knowing when a tree is safe is the ultimate goal."

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