Out Of This World: Space Technology Gets Down To Earth

November 28, 1990|By Cheryl Pellerin | Cheryl Pellerin,Special to The Sun

There are no bubble-topped space colonies on the moon, or ships carrying trailblazers to tame the Martian landscape. Yet exotic new space-age products from the next frontier already are making life here on Earth a lot more interesting.

Imagine zero-gravity farming; musical instruments played by touching clear plastic or by walking into a special room; helmets and vests with built-in air conditioners; and advanced industrial positioning systems for everything from computer chips to aircraft wings.

These products and more are on display in Washington this week at Technology 2000, the first national conference and exhibition of NASA technology available for use by industry.

Beginning in the 1960s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space program inspired cooperative efforts between government and industry to build a global network of satellite communications. Today, the market for telecommunications services generates $3 billion in annual revenues. Orbiting spacecraft help manage crops and forests, monitor the environment, explore for oil and minerals, plot land use and support maritime industries.

A growing number of U.S. companies in many other industries are taking the first steps into space without ever leaving Earth. Some companies, such as 3M in Minnesota, have established space-oriented research facilities at corporate laboratories. Others, small and large, are reaping benefits from the technology-rich space program through NASA's Technology Utilization Program.

Today, at the Washington Hilton, is the last day to see the latest advances in robotics, computers, industrial equipment, biomedical devices, and some applications that are a little more down to earth. At a display sponsored by the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, for example, tiny green plants grow upside down in a special container, oriented by lights lining the container's floor.

Research associate Daniel Barta calls it "astroculture" -- an automated plant-growth facility for use in space. Such galactic gardens are expected to provide oxygen and food, remove carbon dioxide and purify water for long-term and permanently manned space operations.

The Wisconsin center -- a NASA Center for the Commercial Development of Space, established in 1986 with a $5 million NASA grant and partly funded by industry sponsors -- is dedicated to developing technology for automated systems used in space and on earth.

The controlled ecological life-support unit was developed to deliver water to soil for plants in a weightless environment, Mr. Barta says, "because handling water in space is difficult. A lot of money is spent on space showers and human hygiene, and the same problems exist for watering plants."

Some food-producing companies in Wisconsin and Illinois also are interested in the technology for more routine agricultural applications. One food producer, Phyto Farms of America, is interested in the nutrient-solution technology; a Wisconsin sensor company is interested in sensors used to control the mineral composition of the solution; and another company is interested in the unit's lighting system.

A special astroculture unit has been designed to ride aboard the space shuttle in March 1992 to test delivering nutrients to plants in zero-gravity.

A few rows beyond the space farming display, James D. McHale, president of Pittsburgh-based Sensor Frame Corp., stands before a device made of two vertical panels of a glass-like material. Etched on the panels is a drawing of a piano keyboard.

He touches the "keyboard" and, though there are no moving keys, strings, tubes or bells, the device responds with resonant musical notes.

Mr. McHale was playing the VideoHarp, an optically scanned musical instrument controller that converts moving images of the fingers into music.

The $5,000 instrument (just reduced from $9,500) includes a self-contained microcomputer, internal read-only memory, a four-line by 40-character liquid-crystal display and a 200-kilobyte external floppy disk drive. It connects to any standard commercial music synthesizer, directly or indirectly through a personal computer.

The VideoHarp was developed in the Computer Music Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where company founder Paul McAvinney was a researcher in the mid-1980s.

The instrument is based on sensor frames, which are computer chips -- called D-RAMs for dynamic random-access memory chips that are used in most desk-top computers -- that are sensitive to light. The sensor frame's D-RAMs have glass covers instead of being embedded in plastic.

"We've only sold a few VideoHarps," Mr. McHale says, "but we want to get it out into the hands of people who are doing interesting things."

The company is beginning to develop a Stage Frame, a room-sized version of the VideoHarp that "would allow a person to walk through, wave their arms and legs and create music," he adds.

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