Curiously brilliant

The Low Impact Docking System: this hardware is a test for the ORION docking birthing system to connect the Crew Exploration Vehicle to the International Space Station.

Curiously brilliant

How did Bruce Banks ’64 become the top patent producer at NASA Glenn? He started early.

As he considered what inspires his inventions, Bruce Banks ’64 thought back to his first day at Rocky River High School and the old combination lock he was handed for his locker. It didn’t work. 

 

So he drilled a hole in the back to see what he could see. He discovered that, by reversing the locking mechanisms, he could get the lock to open with a combination of two numbers instead of three. It was a teenaged eureka moment.

 

“I could open my locker quicker, which in high school was important,” Banks said, chuckling. “I had curiosity. I have just always been curious about how things work and why. Whenever I have to do something, I’m always thinking about how I could do it better.”

 

If a curious mind led to a successful career, NASA enjoyed the brilliance. In August, Banks was inducted into NASA’s Inventors Hall of Fame, a tribute to his decades of groundbreaking work for the nation’s space agency. 

 

With 39 patents, the physicist from Olmsted Township, Ohio, is the most patented researcher in the history of the NASA Glenn Research Center. His innovations have accelerated space exploration, protected expensive spacecraft and saved the nation hundreds of millions of dollars, according to nominating information. 

 

In one example cited by the NASA Inventions and Contributions Board, Banks led a team of researchers that developed the thin glass coating that protects solar panels from the corrosive effects of atomic oxygen in Earth orbit. That coating extended the life of solar arrays on the International Space Station, saving the project an estimated $15 billion.

 

Banks also developed and patented a method that enabled ion thrusters to keep spacecraft (including DirecTV satellites) in their designated orbits around Earth as well as on their proper trajectories in Deep Space.

 

On Earth, his space technologies have helped launch companies and products ranging from surgical implants to scratch-resistant sun glasses. They have also led to new techniques for art restorations. Banks helped develop the atomic oxygen treatment technique for removing soot and char from paintings.

 

He’s a specialist in electric propulsion technology, thin-film coatings and atomic oxygen, a highly-reactive space gas found high in the earth’s atmosphere. He’s also a living legend at NASA Glenn, having mentored generations of researchers, many of them Case students and alumni, and won numerous agency awards.

 

“This is probably the last big one I’ll get,” he said. “I’ve been here awhile.”

 

Banks earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Case Institute of Technology in 1964, added a master’s in physics at Missouri University of Science and Technology and joined NASA Glenn in 1966. He spent 22 years as chief of the electro-physics branch. He retired, briefly, in 2007 after 41 years at the space agency. 

 

“I was retired for about half a day,” he said, quickly realizing he wasn’t ready to quit. He joined Science Applications International Corporation, a Virginia-based NASA contractor, where he’s a senior physicist working from NASA Glenn.

 

“Same desk, same phone, same colleagues,” he said. “I love my work. I love the people I work with. And Case gave me an excellent foundation.”

 

He credits Case for teaching him how to be a scientist and a problem solver.

 

“It was demanding. It was a struggle. But I learned a lot,” he said. “I had some great professor and I benefited from that.”

 

Like many, he’s been working from home during the pandemic. He’s looking forward to getting back to the lab to dive into new research—this time on the coming Moon and Mars’ missions. The moon is expected to become a transfer station for missions into deep space. The voyages will require spaceships with ion thrusters and solar arrays that will need to be protected from high-velocity propellent exhaust like never before.

 

There’s still much to learn—“frightening amounts,” Banks said. “It’s all interesting. We’ll configure experiments to look at how fast things erode.”

 

And, well, he has a few ideas he’d like to try.

 

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A painting after being restored with the atomic oxygen technique developed by Bruce Banks. Courtesy of NASA

“I could open my locker quicker, which in high school was important. I had curiosity. I have just always been curious about how things work and why. Whenever I have to do something, I’m always thinking about how I could do it better.”

—Bruce Banks