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NASA Helps Kids Discover Their Planet

Partnerships between Federal agencies and other organizations are a central part of reinvention. They can get results no single entity can. Some of these partnerships have large ambitions, others affect fewer people, but in no less significant ways. Just ask Mikie Walker....

Like an astronaut setting foot on a new world, Mikie Walker of Virginia Beach, VA, explores the mysteries of Earth during daylight hours. What makes this so unusual for a seven-year-old boy? Mikie has porphryia, a genetic disorder that causes extreme and potentially dangerous sunlight sensitivity. Exposure to sunlight can result in chronic skin inflammation, blistering, inflammation of nerves, abdominal pain, and other disturbances. For Mikie, and other children with serious light- sensitivity disorders, even a 40-watt light bulb can be dangerous. Playing outside is unthinkable -- at least it was until recently. Now, thanks to expanded partnerships among the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), industry, and non-profit organizations, advanced space technology is being applied to meeting the needs of Earth-bound customers, especially the children.

NASA Partners for Community Solutions

On April 19, 1998, Mikie was freed from his lonely, dark world when he became the first American child to own a modified, pint-sized "space suit" that protects him from the sun's ultraviolet rays and other light sources. NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, offered the suit to Mikie through an agreement with the not-for-profit HED (hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia) and Related Disorders Foundation in Hampton, VA. The HED Foundation donates cooling gear and other garments to children with HED, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and other genetic disorders.

Mikie sports an improved version of the pair of prototype protective suits the JSC team provided in September 1997 to four-year-old Kyle and two-year-old Ryan Richards of Shotton Colliery, England. The brothers have Polymorphic Light Reaction Syndrome, another rare genetic defect that causes a serious allergy to light.

Solutions Start with Asking for Help

"An English newspaper journalist approached us…on behalf of the Richards family," said Robert Dotts, Assistant Director of Technology Transfer and Commercialization The Richards Familyat JSC. After discussions with the family, NASA formed a small team and "set about defining suit requirements, identifying possible materials, and testing them," continued Dotts. Based on test results, NASA engineers designed a two-layer suit and an active cooling system to keep the children comfortable inside the suits. The finished prototypes consisted of white jackets, pants, gloves, and headgear, including goggles, that protected the boys from more than 99.9 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

The JSC team - - Robert Dotts and NASA engineers Dominic Del Rosso and Evelyne Orndorff, and NASA physician, Dr. Smith Johnston - - delivered the suits to the Richards family in Orlando, Florida. Without the suits, the brothers could venture outside only at night. But, looking like junior astronauts, Kyle and Ryan wore their protective suits all over Disney World, and they also viewed a Space Shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Ryan went outside during daylight hours for the first time that day.

Thanks to the "expert" feedback provided by Kyle and Ryan Richards, NASA’s JSC team upgraded the protective garment, and Mikie Walker's mini-space suit has improved ventilation throughout and less overheating in the head area. "The body cooling system was changed from a battery-powered liquid pump unit to a passive phase change vest, made of material similar to refrigerator cold packs used for sports injuries. The vest is simpler, less expensive, and more durable than the original battery pump," said Robert Dotts. The new vest is easier to use for both children and their families, and, according to Dotts, the cost of the entire suit is considerably lower than the prototype.

Like Kyle and Ryan Richards in England, Mikie is enjoying his days in the sun. "Mikie's new favorite outdoor activities include playing in dirt and rolling on the lawn," his mother Angela Walker said. "He enjoys this so much that, at the end of the day, he resembles a soil-encrusted Apollo moonwalker."

Technology Transfer and Commercialization: No One Can Do It Alone

Part of Administrator Dan Goldin's leadership in reinventing NASA is ensuring that scientific research benefits all Americans. Under NASA's technology transfer program, private industry gets quick access to new technologies that they can turn into useful products, such as Mikie's space suit. When NASA spins-off technology innovations from the U.S. civil space program, the Agency's industrial partners can move quickly to manufacture practical applications that benefit everyone.

This time, it was MicroClimate Systems, Inc., of Sanford, MI, that supplied the vest, and the Solar Protective Factory of Carmichael, CA, provided the UV protective outer garments. The DRLI Company, which supplies protective coatings for NASA astronauts' space suit helmets, supplied the clear UV-blocking coating for Mikie's ski-goggle-like face visor.

For more information about UV protective suits for children with applicable disorders, contact the HED Foundation at P.O. Box 9421, Hampton, VA 23670, telephone (757) 826-0065.

For more information about NASA’s technology spin-offs and industrial partnerships, visit the NASA Internet site.


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