When the job demands ingenuity, NASA engineers whip gadgets worthy of James Bond.
- By Eric Adams
- Air & Space magazine, May 2001
(Page 4 of 6)
What they do expect is that the PSA will help astronauts working aboard the International Space Station. Engineers Yuri Gawdiak and Gregory Dorais are in charge of developing the PSA at the Ames center. There, the PSA prototype is being put through a variety of tests that will lead up to eventual usage aboard the ISS.
Dorais explains that, for starters, the PSA will be able to monitor environmental conditions aboard the station, providing a backup check to the station's sensors. "If they lost pressure or power, or if there was a fire and they didn't know what toxic gases were released and whether or not they should sleep, the PSA would monitor that for them and function independently of the ship's systems," Dorais explains.
The PSA maneuvers with small fans and incorporates stereo cameras and display screens that will help astronauts monitor multiple experiments simultaneously. It can be used to communicate with other astronauts as well as external computer databases.
The next challenge is getting the PSA to understand voice commands and behave independently. "We want to get beyond the current technology to dialogue management, and we're using some pretty high-level autonomy software to control its movements and actions," says Dorais, who hopes the PSA will be ready for service by 2006. "It's quite a bit like science fiction."
Gadgets don't have to do startling things to be clever. This award-winning little wrench is a case in point: Though it appears to be an ordinary hardware store ratchet, it represents a significant leap in mechanical technology. John Vranish, an engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, conceived of it to solve a sticky problem astronauts might encounter while assembling hardware in orbit. "We've had 'clickless' ratchets before, but they don't work reliably in space," Vranish says, "because the greases used in these tools often cause slippage and eject gases that can get all over things like optics." And ratchets that do click require so much travel between "clicks" that it's almost impossible to use them in tight spaces.
Vranish's wrench incorporates something known as a 3-D sprag, which permits the wrench to travel in only one direction through a wedging action. "A 2-D sprag is basically a roller which locks in one direction and slips in the other," he explains. "A 3-D sprag is like a disc with wedges and contacts on the surface of those wedges. It locks up better, is more compact, and can withstand more force. It is a fundamentally new mechanical component."
This technology-which also works better than conventional ratchet wrenches in tight spots on Earth-makes ratchetless wrenches possible. NASA is negotiating with several well-known companies that want to market the wrench for industrial and consumer applications. So this is one gadget that James Bond will be able to pick up at Home Depot.