DUSSELDORF, GERMANY - Under a midnight-blue-sky ceiling, not far from where large resin companies promoted their latest wares at K 2001, a space station slowly spun in nocturnal orbit.
Onlookers at a special K-show exhibit dubbed ``From Space to Earth'' glanced upward at the hanging model, a replica of a large-scale, light-bearing space station that was quite a step up from what a preteen might prepare for a school science project.
Visitors to the two-story showcase - stopping for a respite from the K show's relentless grind of machinery and materials - threw mock grains of straw against a board where special piezoelectric film recorded each toss. They marveled at a specially designed spacesuit and watched as a car's air bags inflated after plastic sensors on a car bumper were triggered by a battering ram.
Standing out like an extraterrestrial in a shopping mall, the exhibit traced the coming shift of plastic materials used in space applications to more earthly roles in such areas as baby clothes or grain harvesting.
The show was the brainchild of the Brussels, Belgium-based Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe, or APME, and the Paris-based European Space Agency, NASA's counterpart across the Atlantic. The two first teamed up on a 1999 research study looking at how space applications for plastics could be grounded for use on this planet.
``There is a multitude of plastic being shot up into space,'' said then-APME spokesman Nelo Emerencia, who gave a tour of the display Oct. 28 at the Dusseldorf show. ``But the average person is asking, `What does this all mean to me?' Space holds some applications that we all could use.''
That became the launching pad for the unique exhibit. The Frankfurt-based German Association of Plastics Manufacturers, or VKE, joined as a sponsor, and show organizer Messe Dusseldorf GmbH helped arrange floor logistics.
The result is one that the European trade groups hope can help them launch a hands-on campaign to educate the public about the value of plastics in everyday life, said VKE President Kurt Stepping. While the U.S.-based American Plastics Council has filled the same purpose largely through advertising, the European plastic-resin associations are taking a more hands-on approach, Stepping said.
``We think the public will respond to something they can see and touch,'' Stepping said. The associations are considering using a scaled-down version of the exhibit at other events.
Exhibit A of that idea was a futuristic, solar-powered race car that some day could come to an oval track near you. The car has a top speed of 150 mph.
Solar cells made of wafer-thin composite polyesters are integrated on the car's body, which is constructed from carbon fibers and aramide composite materials. Those same materials currently are used for spacecraft, satellites and probes.
The displays extend the work conducted through the space agency's technology transfer program, started in 1992, to develop household uses not originally intended for the intergalactic materials or processes.
That approach has netted such results as a plastic space house, developed by ESA engineer Fritz Gampe, who works in the agency's technology transfer program. The scale-model house at the exhibit was entirely self-sufficient, recycling water and air and using roof-mounted solar cells to create energy.
Originally, the mobile house - made of carbon-fiber/epoxy resin composites - was developed for astronauts needing temporary dwellings while exploring Mars and other planets, Gampe said. The sealed house would protect those astronauts against Mars' unbreathable air, and its dent-resistant walls guard against sudden meteor showers.
But the same concept can be used on Earth, said Gampe, who is based in Noordwijk-Binnen, the Netherlands. The structure can withstand earthquakes with a magnitude as high as 8.5, as well as hurricane-force winds while standing on six stilts.
``It's an energy-efficient plastic house,'' Gampe said. ``We've created a place that is totally insulated from the elements.''
Clothing also had its down-to-earth applications in the exhibit. An astronaut's insulated spacesuit in a display case sat side-by-side with casual clothing made with the same insulated microcapsules developed by composites maker F.W. Brinkmann GmbH of Herford, Germany.
Those microcapsules, woven into lining material from polyesters or polyamides, store heat when the temperature rises and release it when it gets colder.
And in another example, protective suits worn by astronauts to withstand extreme temperatures are being adapted by firefighters or emergency-services teams, Emerencia said. The inner and outer layers again are woven from polyester.
``They provide their own ecosystem,'' Emerencia said. ``They have a multilayer air system blowing through to cool or heat.''
Even babies benefit from the applications. A Belgian company, Mammagoose GmbH, introduced a protection suit at the show, using integrated sensors made from piezoelectric plastic film. The suit triggers an alarm when a sleeping baby is in danger of suffocating from sudden infant death syndrome. The same material, regularly used in high-velocity spacecraft, also can count the grains remaining in straw threshed by a combine harvester, and it can dictate the moment after a vehicle accident when the air bag and belt tensioners inside a car should activate.
Composite materials used in space travel also serve as good vibration buffers, said Peter Netz, an engineer with the Braunschweig, Germany-based Institute of Structural Mechanics. Currently, fiberglass-reinforced plastic rods are used for parabolic antennae mounted on some space stations, Netz said.
Those antennae are more flexible than metal substitutes. The same material can be used for engine mountings on the propellers of airplanes, lowering the noise threshold inside the cabin, Netz said.
Above the exhibit's set pieces hung the replica of the international space station, developed by the space agency. The real station, already launched six times and costing about $130 million, uses a variety of synthetic materials to control vibration and protect the craft.
They include meteor protection panels, internal structural components, air-conditioning parts and thermal and acoustic insulation materials.
An entire section of the space station, about 20 percent of the craft, is made of composite plastic materials, Emerencia said. The same substances now are seeking earthbound applications, with European scientists and engineers looking for the right match between materials.
``Some of it is a matter of getting the costs down, and some of it is the fact that it hasn't been tried yet,'' Emerencia said. ``But a number of companies in Europe are working on applications that seem novel and futuristic but could be of benefit now. Plastics is an enabler. That's the point of this whole show.''