JSC Annual Report FY97







Research and

Aerospace and the
Business Communities

JSC and the




Research and

Research and development projects at the Johnson Space Center during FY 1997 continued to provide a technological base to carry out the missions of NASA and the Center and to meet the goals of the Human Exploration and Development of Space Enterprise.

Aerospace medicine and biomedical research at the Center covered a wide spectrum, including an advanced cell-culture device mimicking the effects of microgravity, a miniature pump based on technology used for the Space Shuttle's main engines and designed to assist the human heart, and advanced biomedical monitoring techniques.

Among highlights was initial development of the X-38, which could become a crew return vehicle for the International Space Station and perhaps serve as a technological base for development of the first new crewed spacecraft in more than 20 years.

Another project saw volunteers complete a 60-day test of the Advanced Life Support System concept, a human life support system designed to supply food, water and oxygen and operate indefinitely in space without resupply from Earth. Another such test for 90 days was begun in FY 1997 and concluded successfully in December.

Aerospace Medicine and Biomedical Research

NASA technology spinoffs
provide new tools for the
medical community

A series of ongoing projects use the unique conditions of orbital space microgravity and the capabilities of Johnson Space Center researchers. Ongoing projects include

  • A system to grow cells in three dimensions, similar to the way they would grow in the microgravity of space, is leading to advances in medical research. Called the Rotating Wall Bioreactor, it could lead to improvements in treatment or prevention of a variety of diseases, including diabetes, cancer and AIDS.
  • Advances in turbopump technology required by the Space Shuttle's main engines have resulted in development of a very small heart pump. Johnson Space Center scientists and a team led by Baylor College of Medicine's Dr. Michael DeBakey developed the Ventricular Assist Device to assist the human heart. The technology subsequently was licensed to a commercial medical company, MicroMed Technology, Inc. The company is developing ancillary support systems through preclinical trials at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Utah.
  • A compact device for monitoring vital signs from a sensor inside the ear canal is under development. Called the Intra-Aural Probe, it is designed to be used by crewmembers of the Shuttle on launch and re-entry or during spacewalks. Possible public uses include monitoring in ambulances, in aircraft or for firefighters.
  • Developed at the Johnson Space Center, Telemedicine was initially used to monitor the health of astronauts during space flight. It is now used to help physicians evaluate and treat patients remotely.

The X-38

Drop testing the X-38
Unpiloted flight testing of the X-38, a prototype that could become the first new human spacecraft to travel to and from orbit in the past two decades, began during FY 1997. The spacecraft was designed by engineers at the Johnson Space Center working toward a vehicle that could become operational at a fraction of the cost of past human spacecrafts.

The innovative X-38 project's goal is to assemble a prototype crew return vehicle for the International Space Station. But the X-38 concept could be modified for other uses, such as a possible joint U.S. and international human spacecraft that could be sent into orbit on any of several U.S. and international launchers.

Part of the X-38 program involves an unprecedented eye toward efficiency. Significant cost savings will result from taking advantage of commercially available equipment and technology in as much as 80 percent of the spacecraft's design. Initial estimates to build a capsule-type crew return vehicle were more than $2 billion. Current estimates are that the X-38 concept could develop and build four operational crew return vehicles for less than $500 million.

The X-38 design uses a lifting body concept. It would glide from orbit, then use a steerable parafoil parachute to descend for landing. Use of commercial equipment -- including a flight computer already used in aircraft, flight software used in many aerospace applications, and primary navigational equipment (the X-38's Inertial Navigation System/Global Positioning System already is used on Navy fighters) -- help keep costs low on the 28.5-foot-long, 14.5-foot-wide, 16,000-pound spacecraft.

The first X-38 atmospheric test vehicle was outfitted at the Johnson Space Center and shipped in the summer of 1997 to the Dryden Flight Research Center for flight testing.

Advanced Life Support System

A systems engineer works with the
Portable Clinical Blood Analyser
kit in the Advanced Life Support Chamber
The human life support system could prove to be a vital element in long-duration space flight. The successful 60-day test of the Advanced Life Support System concept and the subsequent 90-day test, also with four volunteers, were parts of what is called the Advanced Life Support Test Project.

The life support system used in the 60- and 90-day tests reuses liquids and solid materials. Only energy is added. It is perhaps the ultimate in recycling and regeneration and could supply crewmembers with food, water and oxygen indefinitely.

The tests, begun in 1995, are precursors to the Bioregenerative Advanced Life Support System test bed complex: five chambers providing the air, water and most of the food for a crew of four on a continuous basis. Its testing is to begin in 2001 and culminate in a 425-day test starting in 2006.

The TransHab

A new design concept for a habitation element for lengthy space missions was unveiled during FY 1997. The concept could be developed as a habitation (or perhaps laboratory) module for the International Space Station, used as a vehicle to carry humans on long-duration space voyages to other planets, and used as a habitation module on the surface of other planets or on the moon.

Called the TransHab, it is a hybrid combining a hard central core with an inflatable outer shell. Its volume would be about twice that of the Space Shuttle cargo bay. Its design includes a fully closed regenerative life support system with air and water reused. It also would provide the crew with guidance and navigation controls, protection from meteroids, and an airlock. The systems are designed to be mounted on structural shelves that are part of the central core.

The TransHab design calls for it to be launched deflated in the Space Shuttle's cargo bay. Once in orbit, it would be inflated to its full volume and its interior configured for its specific mission. The shell of the inflatable area is composed of a layer of several materials to offer protection from heat, radiation and orbital debris or meteroids.

Continuing R&D

Research, development and testing programs continuing at the center during FY 1997 included

  • Research on materials in space-like vacuum and temperature extremes
  • Tests of hardware under simulated vibration and acoustic conditions of various phases of space flight
  • Development and tests of spacecraft communications systems in the Anechoic Chamber Test Facility, which simulates the nonreflective electromagnetic environment of space
  • Advanced space suit research u Robotics related to human space operations
  • Utilization of resources on bodies like the moon and Mars