Biological Sciences Help Defense, Space Programs

By Book, Elizabeth G. | National Defense, June 2001 | Go to article overview
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Biological Sciences Help Defense, Space Programs


Book, Elizabeth G., National Defense


Fifteen years from now, one out of three NASA employees will be a biologist, said Dan Goldin, administrator of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration. His prediction is based on the reality that aerospace and defense research programs increasingly are turning to the hard science of biotechnology and the study of nanotechnology to create a more flexible, technically savvy force.

Goldin spoke during the recent mid-Atlantic technology consortium's Tech Trends conference in Atlantic City, N.J.

Biotechnology is the application of biological knowledge and techniques to produce innovative materials, devices and systems. For example, NASA is now designing a new generation of spacecraft that will improve its performance by imitating bird flight. "A wealth of technological breakthroughs is likely to come from mimicking the interactions of biological systems and their response to the environment," Goldin explained.

NASA is exploring the use of nanotechnology for potentially far-reaching non-defense applications. A nanometer is a unit of measurement approximately [10.sup.-9] microns long. Using nanotechnology, it is possible to stack molecules tightly to create almost impenetrable, self-repairing, self-sensing or self-adapting materials. Though NASA is developing the material for building aircraft, "this will have a huge impact on many markets," Goldin said. "We're not funding revolutionary advances. We're funding revolution," he said.

The agency has developed a so-called carbon nanotube, a new form of carbon several microns long. Goldin said that some forms of carbon nanotubes "appear to possess extraordinary properties." The nanotubes, when stacked together, are reported to have the strength five times that of steel, and "tensile strength approaching 100 gigapascals, over 100 times the strength of steel," he said.

NASA's carbon nanotechnology has led to the development of a medical application: a nanoelectronic-based biopsy sampler. The device, developed at NASA Ames in Moffett Field, Calif., in collaboration with the Nation al Cancer Institute, seeks to perform biopsies on human tissue, with minimal invasion of the body, that would provide instantaneous results. Today, biopsies take one to three weeks to come back from the lab.

The idea that medical advances can be achieved via space programs, however, is not universally accepted. "I would no more expect the space program to spin off new medical technology, than to expect the medical technology community to spin off a space program," said John Pike, a defense technology analyst.

James Donahue, chairman of the Tech Trends conference, echoed Goldin's enthusiasm for the contributions that biotechnology and nanotechnology could bring to space and defense programs. Donahue noted that the traditional boundaries between areas of technology are being blurred, because some disciplines are multi-dimensional. "Technologies that have their origins in military applications, such as night-vision goggles, are now being used by civilians such as firefighters. With night-vision goggles, firefighters can go into buildings where the power has been cut and rescue those trapped inside," he said. "These technologies are saving lives."

Donahue also highlighted the expertise of the mid-Atlantic region's technology consortium, which is made up of industry, government and academic professionals. Through government-funded research and private investment, the consortium is working to apply defense technology to other fields, such as health care and emergency response.

Private companies and research consortia exhibiting at the Tech Trends conference touted the dual-use benefits of various products, for military and civilian use. Ansar Inc., based in Philadelphia, has developed a heart-rate measuring device small enough to be sewn into a soldier's uniform. The device measures vital signs upon contact with the body.

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