HAMPTON, VA. - The space wizards at NASA are looking down the barrel of budget cuts, as are many government workers. But the NASA folks may have an edge because many of their far-out projects can lead to down-to-solid-earth commercial products. Quite a bit of NASA's effort has been devoted to plastics materials and products - although the air and space applications seem alien to observers more accustomed to watching mundane processes like injection molding and mold making.
But researchers point out that plastics developed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration can find a home in other products, like contact lenses, bumper beams, flexible circuit boards and sporting goods.
NASA offered the public a peek at its wares last month - trade-show style - at its Technologies Opportunities Showcase, Tops '95.
The show was held inside a hangar at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton.
The show is designed to expedite transfer of aerospace technology to nonaerospace busi-nesses as well as to the aero-space industry, which has been the customary beneficiary of big-budget, often esoteric, programs like the manned space station set for orbit in the late 1990s.
Some of the technology being shown has been licensed or is under a cooperative arrangement, but only when the technology has a potential for multiple applications, the agency said.
Plastics have been produced in the microgravity of space aboard the shuttle Discovery in Langley experiments with gas-permeable polymeric materials. Production in space yielded plastics that are more uniform and permeable than those produced on earth, according to the agency.
``Permeable plastics are ideal for extended-wear contact lenses because they allow more oxygen to reach the cornea. That is essential to prevent swelling of the eye,'' according to a NASA news release.
Other uses of gas-permeable polymers include membranes for dialysis machines and monitoring blood gases, control for fermentation and other manufacturing processes like production of pure gases.
The lens experiment was done with Paragon Vision Sciences Inc. of Mesa, Ariz.
In the test, 28 polymer materials were blasted into space in a sealed polymerization module installed in a commercial refrigerator/oven unit that maintained a constant temperature. An identical group of samples stayed on earth and the two groups were compared.
NASA also has developed a new type of engineering plastic it calls LaRC-SI, described as a true amorphous thermoplastic that is lightweight and extremely durable. The material can be injection or compression molded or fiber melt spun while retaining its shape.
LaRC-SI was formulated for a high-speed civil transport aircraft, where it would be used with graphite in gears, thrust bearings and washers, said Garland D. Reese, an engineer with Langley's composite and model development section.
One oddity of the material is that it is soluble only one time. That means it can be used to encapsulate items like electronic components in very thin layers about 1 millimeter thick. Such qualities would be desirable in a product like a flexible circuit board, Reese said.
The material can be sprayed, yet because of its durability can be machined and polished with conventional equipment.
Langley work in energy-absorbing plastics has led to materials that NASA believes can benefit automakers, several of whom have expressed an interest. NASA has worked with beams made of polyurethane foam and Kevlar face sheets.
In addition to automotive applications, the material would be effective in highway barriers and bridge abutments, according to NASA.
Langley engineers also have developed an engine piston made of carbon reinforced with carbon fiber. They call it a carbon-carbon piston. They said it overcomes shortcomings of pistons of aluminum, the conventional material.
The carbon-carbon pistons operate at higher temperatures without failure, have greater reliability at high-power output levels and can have less reciprocating mass because carbon-carbon is stronger than aluminum alloys.
Possible uses include installation in engines for race cars, snowmobiles, pumps and ultralight aircraft, researchers said.
Their goals include creation of ringed and ringless carbon-carbon cylinder liners and other carbon-carbon engine components.
NASA also hopes to find commercial applications for LaRC-IA.
Originally developed as an adhesive, the material can be used as film in wrapping, as a molding composite for things like camera bodies and medical tubing, as a fiber comparable to DuPont's Nomex and as a fire-barrier foam or wiring coating, according to the agency.
Workers at Langley developed several high-performance thermoset and thermoplastic polymers that NASA scientists said represent significant advances in the field.
``These polymers can be used in a variety of applications including hot-melt adhesives, mechanical parts, binders, atomic oxygen-resistant coatings, fibers and as high-performance matrix resins in advanced composites,'' according to NASA.
Several of the new plastics are commercially available or can be licensed.
A lengthy list of potential products includes optical coatings, flat panel displays, bearings, textiles, high-performance sporting equipment, prosthetics and reusable medical plastics that could be sterilized in an autoclave.
NASA said it is looking for partnerships to develop commercial products based on polymer technology and fabrication processes. The agency said it has unique manufacturing equipment available for prototype fabrication and process development.
NASA also is doing research in mold making with emphasis on computer numerical control of surface machining.
Nearly 1,000 individuals representing about 450 nonaerospace companies participated in TOPS '95, according to Charles Blank-enship, director of the technology applications group at NASA Langley.