The first orbital flight of the space shuttle is set for March 14, 1981 -- nearly three years later than expected when the program was begun in 1972. But the technological spinoff from the shuttle project is already well under way.
Americans will likely see the greatest impact from the new space venture in the years ahead, points out Joseph P. Loftus, chief of technical planning at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center here. That is when scientists and specialists from private industry may develop products and processes in orbit, not now feasible within the influence of Earth's gravity. The shuttle will transport men and materials into orbit and then glide back to earth for re-use.
However, innovative technology and new materials developed in building the shuttle, which has features of both an airplane and a space ship, already are finding mundane commercial application in the United States.
Mr. Loftus likens the spread of space technology to dropping a rock in a pond. In developing the shuttle, scientists found solutions to design and engineering problems that now are slowly rippling into the private sector. "That process is probably near its peak right now," Loftus says.
Here are a few examples of shuttle-related technology with both proved and potential application for society as a whole:
* The silica tiles that delayed the launch of the shuttle because they kept popping off the vehicle have great potential as a liner for industrial furnaces, says Loftus. The material is being used on the exterior of the shuttle to insulate the vehicle from the tremendous heat it will encounter on reentering the Earth's atmosphere. Although it is expensive, silica could make a good furnace liner in the manufacture of precision parts like ceramic jet-engine components, says Loftus.