SLIDESHOW

Happy Birthday, NASA: 55 years of space-inspired tech

On October 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came into existence. Take a look back at 55 years of tech inspired by the space program.

Credit: NASA
NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came into existence on On October 1, 1958. Although NASA and the space race epitomized the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower intended the agency as a civilian-facing, peaceful organization—an administrative body focused solely on the expansion of humanity's frontiers rather than the development of military technology.

You might not have been to space in person (yet), but you probably have a little piece of NASA-generated tech in your living room, your kitchen, or even in your clothes.

So to give NASA a happier birthday than the government is giving them, let's take a look at the technology NASA developed over the last 55 years that you might use every day (and some technology that it didn't develop, but everyone thinks it did).

Image source: NASA

Portable vacuum

When NASA needed a specialized portable drill for the Apollo missions, they turned to Black & Decker—developers of the first cordless power tools. Black & Decker created a computer program to optimize power consumption and design the new drill, which would be used to extract samples from under the moon's surface.

The same principles were then used for production of the Dustbuster, the world's first portable vacuum cleaner.

Credit: Johan
Memory foam

If you use a memory foam mattress, I'm sure your back says a quiet, “Thank you,” to NASA each morning.

While not developed for space travel, NASA did play a part in the 1966 invention of memory foam under contract to make airplane seats safer.

Memory foam's unique properties—it compresses somewhat under pressure but slowly regains its shape after pressure is removed—have broadened its applications far beyond its original use. Nowadays the material is found in everything from sports equipment and footwear to prosthetic limbs, furniture, and amusement park rides.

Image source: Johan, Wikipedia

Speedo LZR

This NASA spinoff is so good it got called, "technological doping" and was banned from all major competitions.

The Speedo LZR swimsuit, which repels water and significantly reduces drag, was partially developed with NASA resources, including wind tunnels and fluid-flow analysis software.

Before it was banned by FINA, swimming's administrative body, LZR wearers toppled more than 130 world records in the sport.

Aural thermometers

If you've ever taken your temperature with a standard thermometer, you know it's a tedious process. You put the thing under your tongue, you tap your foot for a minute or so, and finally find out whether you've got a fever or not.

While a minute's not that long on an individual basis, it's an incredible waste of time for nurses who might see dozens of patients each day. Instead, medical facilities use ear thermometers that employ the same technology NASA developed to measure the temperature of stars and planets.

Ear, or aural, thermometers measure the thermal radiation released by the eardrum, providing an accurate temperature reading in under two seconds, while avoiding cross-contamination from patients' mucous membranes.

Credit: Foster Grant
Scratch-resistant lenses

Glasses used to be made primarily of—surprise!—glass. Then, presumably, some smart person thought, “It seems like a piece of glass mere centimeters from my eye is a huge safety risk.” Either that or they saw the Twilight Zone episode where the guy breaks his glasses after the apocalypse.

Either way, since 1972, the Food and Drug Administration has required manufacturers to make lenses from materials that won't shatter—plastics, for the most part. The only problem? Plastics are easier to scratch.

In 1983, Foster Grant licensed the same technology that NASA used to protect equipment—primarily the astronauts' iconic reflective helmet visors—to coat sunglasses.

Image source: Foster Grant

UV-protected sunglasses

In addition to scratch-proofing your sunglasses, NASA's technology also protects your eyes from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

In the early 1980s, NASA looked into ways to mitigate “arc-eye,” a term coined by arc welders to describe how the retina's condition broke down over time.

NASA's scientists took inspiration from hawks and eagles: raptors have special oil drops in their eyes that filter out harmful radiation. NASA emulated this effect with a zinc oxide coating and developed a new welding mask.

And for all us non-welders, the technology quickly made its way to sunglasses.

Credit: groundswell.biz
Invisible braces

Braces are about the least sexy technology in the world...unless they're space braces, that is.

NASA's Advanced Ceramics Research arm originally partnered with a company called Ceradyne to create a material that could protect the infrared antennae on heat-seeking missile trackers. The result was a translucent ceramic, known as TPA (translucent polycrystalline alumina).

Simultaneously, a second company was in search of ways to remove the social stigma around braces. TPA was both strong and unobtrusive—a perfect match for the company's purposes.

Image source: groundswell.biz

Credit: Spinoff Magazine, 1995
Advanced water filtration

In the mid-1970s, NASA partnered with a company known as Umpqua Research to figure out a water purification system for the Space Shuttle. The result was the MCV, or Microbial Check Valve—a system that dispensed iodine to kill off water-borne bacteria.

Since then, NASA has iterated on the technology, most recently creating the Regenerative Environmental Control Life Support System.

The size of two refrigerators, the system can support up to six people aboard the International Space Station with chemical adsorption, ion exchange, and ultra-filtration. While designed for space, the system is also perfect for developing regions where water may be heavily contaminated, or (on a smaller scale) for use in your home.

Image source: Spinoff Magazine, 1995

NASA did not invent: Teflon

NASA used Teflon, sure, just like millions use Teflon every night to cook dinner. However, lawyers tell me there's a difference between “use” and “invent.”

NASA coated everything from heat shields to spacesuits with Teflon because of its low-friction qualities, but credit for Teflon goes to a chemist by the name of Roy Plunkett.

Plunkett accidentally invented Teflon (the brand name for “polytetrafluoroethylene”) while attempting to create a new refrigerant.

Credit: NASA
NASA did not invent: Velcro

Astronauts used Velcro during the Apollo missions to, for example, prevent equipment from floating around the spacecraft in zero-gravity. Since for many people this was their first exposure to the fabric, NASA is often cited as the inventor.

That's too bad for George de Mestral, a Swiss electrical engineer who invented the futuristic fastener in 1948 after he noticed burrs stuck to his dog's fur.

De Mestral can't feel too badly, though; NASA's endorsement led to the popularization of what was originally viewed as a “niche” or “utilitarian” fabric. Astronauts even have a patch of Velcro inside their visors, which they use to scratch their noses.

NASA did not invent: Tang

Here's the power of proper marketing: Tang was commercially available starting in 1959, a full three years before John Glenn took it aboard the Mercury spacecraft to conduct eating experiments.

After Glenn drank Tang in orbit, owner General Foods leaned into its spaceflight associations with a vast advertising campaign that linked the two together. Tang was space. Space was full of orangutang astronauts that drank Tang.

Many still believe Tang was invented solely for NASA's program. In fact, it was created by food chemist William A. Mitchell, who was also the man behind Pop Rocks, quick-set Jello, Cool Whip, and powdered egg whites.

Yum.

NASA did not invent: Bar codes

Like many NASA myths, this one isn't all false. NASA, at one point, partnered with American Bar Codes, Inc. to create specialized labels for the various space shuttle parts.

The agency designed these labels to resist various extreme environments that the shuttle might encounter—salt spray, 700-degree temperatures, and ultraviolet radiation.

But the bar code existed long before NASA implemented ABC's design. Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland filed for the first barcode patent in 1949, and the first modern barcode was on a pack of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum, scanned June 26, 1974 in Ohio.