I think we are all pretty familiar with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and at least some of its amazing achievements.
NASA was established in 1958 and has its headquarters in Washington, DC. As you can imagine, they get to spend some serious money – in 2022 they had an authorised budget of US$24.041 billion! Of course, when you spend that much public money, you also attract some high-level criticism. But that’s another story.
We associate NASA with some very high-tech achievements over many years:
- Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the moon in 1969 – a truly fantastic project that owed its existence to a desire to stay ahead of the Soviet Union.
- The first Mars landing in 1976.
- The various Voyager projects where the spacecrafts have now left our solar system and continue to journey into interstellar space.
Not quite so well known are the many NASA developments that have found their way into everyday applications. Just a few examples are:
- Cell phone camera
- Cordless vacuum
- Infrared ear thermometer
- Grooved pavements
- Emergency blanket
This list could go on and on, but recently we came across a different type of innovation from NASA.
Some years ago NASA engineers discovered that their Ares 1 rocket had a crucial flaw. It was not due to any malfunction, but was a simple cause-and-effect physics issue. During the final stages of a launch, as the solid booster rocket burns down it makes the entire vehicle oscillate rapidly. Add that oscillation to the resonant frequency of the large tube that separates the booster and the cabin crew, and you get a crew capsule that vibrates like crazy. When humans are vibrating to that extent, it’s impossible for them to read a digital display. In other words, the astronauts can’t do their jobs and therefore the mission cannot go ahead. Back in the old days this wasn’t a problem as all readings were analog, but with the modern digital displays, it was a serious issue.
The engineers panicked. Their estimates called for hundreds of millions of dollars plus lots of development time to resolve the problems.
In technical terms, the vibration frequency of the rocket would fluctuate between 10Hz and 13Hz with the average around 12Hz. They also knew that as the rocket gained speed the shake would increase. Calculations showed that at the final stage, when the astronauts would be already subjected to 4g’s of acceleration, they would be getting an additional 0.7g’s. Tests showed that at this level of acceleration even the largest numbers on the digital display were entirely illegible. The cost of counter-firing motors would run into hundreds of millions of dollars and years of development – both totally unacceptable.
An innovative idea!
And then some engineer had a really innovative idea. If they were to strobe the display in time with the vibration, the problem would go away – i.e. the relative movement between the rocket vibration and the display vibration would be zero, so the display would become crystal clear. So instead of millions of dollars and many years of development, they could simply purchase a few accelerometers to ensure the vibration and the strobing were synchronised.
Apparently NASA has patented the technology and obviously the problems it solved were not specific to NASA. Helicopters, planes and fast-moving boats all have this problem! Yet another NASA development that has everyday applications.