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NASA Nurtures Inventors to Produce Space Wonders of the Future

Business manager Dale K. Little said the institute spends about $3 million a year on research, averaging about 15 of the peer-reviewed, $75,000 "Phase I" grants and about five follow-on "Phase II" grants of as much as $400,000 each.

"In our process, the word 'nurture' is very important," Turner said. "We want to get hold of the long-haired, sandaled professors and put them with the NASA people who might be most interested in their concept."

Jerome Pearson, an engineer in Mount Pleasant, S.C., shows rendering of the lunar space elevator for which he received a $75,000 grant from NASA. (Wade Spees For The Washington Post)

North Carolina State University plant biologist Wendy F. Boss and microbiologist Amy M. Grunden are using their $75,000 to develop plants for space environments by implanting them with genes from "extremophile" organisms that thrive on Earth in conditions of intense cold, heat, toxicity or radiation, or lack of oxygen or water.

They have inserted such a gene into cultured tobacco cells, Boss said in a telephone interview, and in March they will know whether the gene produces a functional enzyme that makes the cells hardier.

If it does, the pair will apply for a Phase II grant to identify genes that will produce specific characteristics in potentially useful plants. "They give you very little money and lots of pressure," Boss said. "But it's so much fun."

At Virginia Tech, aerospace engineer Craig A. Woolsey wants to design a glider that can fly through thick, soupy atmospheres -- such as those on Venus (sulfuric acid) and Titan (methane) -- by expanding and contracting to increase or decrease buoyancy, causing the aircraft to go up and down. Shifting weights inside the fuselage would regulate horizontal movement.

"Buoyancy gliding is a fairly tested idea, and it's proven to be very efficient in oceans," Woolsey said in a telephone interview. "But nobody has proposed using it on a celestial body."

At the University of Alabama, in Huntsville, physicist and electrical engineer Richard Fork is using his grant to design a space-based laser that could charge batteries on the moon or provide what he calls "wall socket" power for spaceships.

The crux of his idea is a rod-shaped laser core made of alternating wafers of titanium-containing sapphire, to amplify sunlight, and diamond, to remove heat, "like a roll of Life Savers," Fork said in a telephone interview. "It's encouraging that the ability to make high-quality diamond [at reasonable prices] is advancing."

Some of the grantees are very familiar to NASA. Massachusetts Institute of Technology aerospace engineer Jeffrey Hoffman, who went on five missions as an astronaut, won $75,000 to design a superconducting magnet system lightweight enough for a spacecraft to carry it and use the magnetic field for radiation protection.

"It's sort of embarrassing, because the idea is not new. The Earth itself has been doing it for billions of years," Hoffman said in a telephone interview. "There's a lot of disagreement about whether this is viable. We would like to find out that it is."

Another old space pro is Pearson, who spent 36 years with NASA's Apollo program and the Defense Department's Star Wars initiative before retiring to devote himself to research projects such as the space elevator, of which he was an early enthusiast. The elevator is conceptually possible because a satellite in orbit above the same spot on Earth (or the moon) is being equally influenced by gravity, which wants to pull it down, and centrifugal force, which wants to fling it farther into space.

The weight of a cable dropped to the surface of the host must be balanced by a counterweight, like a kite's tail trailing away into space. As long as this equilibrium is maintained, the cable may be virtually any length.

Theoretically. In practice, no material exists that is strong enough to dangle 23,000 miles from a geostationary satellite to Earth's surface without breaking from its own weight. The hope is that a cable made of carbon nanotubes will eventually do the trick, but a practical carbon nanofiber has not been invented.

Pearson's idea is to build an elevator from a satellite in lunar orbit to the moon's surface. Because the moon is only one-eightieth the mass of Earth, the cable can be made now, because existing composite fibers are strong enough to handle that load.

Also, on the moon there is no danger from derelict rocket stages, dead satellites and other space junk, nor is it necessary to work out a way for satellites to get past the cable without slicing it in two.

To get to the NASA institute's Phase II, Pearson intends to draw a picture of what a lunar space elevator would look like -- a vertical drop with a bending "branch line" heading part way to a base at one of the lunar poles, where explorers will be closer to whatever water ice deposits the moon has.

The cable cars would carry polar station supplies along the branch line, even as they dig regolith along the main line. And if the ascending cars can be moved beyond the orbital balance point to the counterweight cable dangling in space, centrifugal force would make them travel faster and faster.

"They could go far enough to get to higher Earth orbit, where the regolith could be used in space habitats," Pearson said. "It would make nice shielding from cosmic rays, and it would be real cheap."

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