Space age pursuits lead to grounded tech

It’s easy to let your mind drift skyward these days.

The James Webb space telescope is capturing images that promise to unlock secrets about the origins of the universe. Space tourism is emerging as an option for the well-heeled set, thanks to billionaires Besos, Branson, and Musk. (Strange that the rockets came before Musk’s long-promised Tesla Semi, but I digress.) And I count myself among the fans of For All Mankind, an Apple+ show which imagines a space race that would have continued if the Soviet Union beat NASA to the moon.

Little did I expect that the news would touch on earthly matters such as tire life.

footprint on moon
New tire treads will be joining the footprints on the moon. (Photo: iStock)

Just as NASA was celebrating the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, Goodyear announced it was joining Lockheed Martin in developing a lunar mobility vehicle.

Goodyear has been designing tires for the lunar surface since the Apollo mission itself, and the two companies want to establish the first extended-use commercial vehicle operations on the moon.

That’s right. Commercial vehicles. In space.

“NASA’s Artemis program to live and work on the moon has a clear need for lunar surface transportation that we intend to meet with vehicles driven by astronauts or operated autonomously without crew,” said Lockheed Martin vice-president – lunar exploration campaigns.

For Goodyear, that will involve applying lessons around airless tires to the project.

Such projects can seem a million kilometers away from reality, or at least the 384,400 km distance between the earth and moon. But Goodyear senior vice-president – global operations and chief technology officer Chris Helsel stressed that the lessons will apply to earthly pursuits as well.

“Everything we learn from making tires for the moon’s extremely difficult operating environment will help us make better airless tires on earth,” he said. “This will contribute to our end goal of enabling mobility no matter where it takes place.”

The latest mission presents several challenges. Tires used on the original Apollo lunar rovers only had to travel within five miles of their landing sites and last just a few days. The new versions will need to last years, and survive temperatures of -155 to 120 Celsius.

Earthly applications could seem far removed from such needs, but it’s important to remember that the space program has led to a wide array of technologies that the trucking industry takes for granted today.

The GPS units used to track equipment and cargo can trace their origins to the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite in the 1950s. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory discovered they could track the satellite using radio signals and the Doppler Effect. This led them to realize that the same science could be used to locate a receiver on the ground by measuring its distance from a satellite.

Have a memory foam mattress in the sleeper? The temper foam was developed for NASA in the 1970s to improve seat cushions. And Northrop Grumman credits space-related research on products as diverse as LED lighting, wireless headsets, and memory foam. Laptop computers can trace their heritage to the Shuttle Portable Onboard Computer (SPOC) developed in the 1980s for the space shuttle.

For that matter, are you reading this through glasses with scratch-resistant lenses? Foster-Grant developed scratch-resistant plastics after securing a licence from NASA, which had developed scratch-resistant helmets for astronauts.

Who knows what earthly applications will emerge from our ongoing interest in the space age pursuits. The sky’s the limit.

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.


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  • Annual budget for NASA is 23 Billion – Hollywood (US motion picture industry) is $65 Billion. (2021) – Just sayin’ for those who complain about government spending on science – but gladly reap the benefits