Watching the Olympics from Beijing the last week got me thinking about how much aerospace technology is used at the games. Probably the biggest application of aerospace technology is also the least apparent: the use of satellites to transmit audio, video and data all over the world. Without the satellites to provide near-real time information on each and every event, the games would never have reached the popularity that allows over a billion people to watch, listen or read about the athletic events taking place. The only time you get a feel for the pervasiveness of the technology is when the cameras pan over Tiananmen Square. That’s when you notice the satellite dishes from news and TV organizations scattered about like water lilies, transmitting Olympic information to orbital satellites where it is then relayed back down to ground stations, and into homes throughout the planet.
One area that has been getting a lot of attention are the new swimsuits worn by both male and female swimmers. The Speedo LZR swimsuit is probably a good reason over a dozen world records were set at these Olympics. This swimsuit was the most notable application of aerospace technology at the games. NASA was involved in wind tunnel testing to determine a material that produced the least amount of wind resistance (“drag” in aeronautical terms). Also, wind tunnel testing helped determine the optimal suit configuration so that when worn, it reduced the “nooks and crannies” of the human body that produce drag when moving through the water.
Also, any Olympic sport that involves speed and quickness to determine a winner probably includes aerospace-developed materials, or used aerospace technology to test and develop the hardware. Olympic sports such as cycling, sailing, rowing, tennis, etc. strive to have the lightest and most streamlined hardware available, and that usually means light-weight, high-strength materials such as carbon-fiber composites, and even titanium parts. The use of this technology was first seen in aerospace applications, were every ounce is critical to the range and load-carrying capability of an aircraft. Wind tunnels are often used to reduce drag to a minimum, especially on the high-tech bikes used in the velodrome events. Once again, the Beijing Olympics have demonstrated that aerospace technology can be applied to many other areas than just aircraft or spacecraft.