It’s no big secret that a number of countries have invested a substantial portion of tax payer dollars into space-based programs. This has left a lot of people wondering whether their money could be better spent in areas that might be in greater need of more immediate financial support. However, the fact of the matter is that since its formation in 1958, NASA has gone well beyond simply making contraptions to send into space. The Space Act was even put in place to ensure that the research conducted and discoveries made by NASA provide a benefit to the general public in addition to furthering our knowledge of the cosmos. By remaining faithful to this mandate, NASA has actually generated a great number of consumer products that people all over the world use everyday without having any idea they resulted from research into space exploration. These inventions have had the effect of improving our quality of life here on Earth and have since inspired new technologies with the potential to boost a nation’s economy.
Of the over 6,300 patents that NASA currently has under its belt, here are 12 that have had the biggest impacts on our everyday lives.
12. Shoe Insoles
The space suit designed for the Apollo missions was an extremely sophisticated piece of technology. It even included specially-made boots that provided ventilation while also putting an extra spring in an astronaut’s steps. Athletic shoe companies have since adopted this technology and used it to make better shoes that lessen the impact on your feet and legs as you’re walking and running.
11. Memory Foam
Originally designed for NASA aircraft seats to help minimize the impact experienced by astronauts during landings, temper foam, or memory foam, is commonly used in a variety of products including mattresses, pillows, furniture and safety equipment. The open cell polyurethane silicon has a unique property that allows it to evenly distribute the weight and pressure on top of it to provide excellent shock absorbency. Even when compressed to 10 percent of its size, memory foam will always return to its original shape. Thanks to this invention, NASA has literally helped millions of people sleep better at night.
10. Cordless Tools
For the Apollo space mission NASA was in need of a portable, self-contained drill that was powerful and durable enough to extract core samples from beneath the lunar surface. With the help of Black & Decker, a computer program was developed to optimize the design of the drill’s motor and insure minimal power consumption. That computer program led to the development of a cordless miniature vacuum cleaner, cordless medical instruments and many other cordless tools we use every day.
9. Invisible Braces
Invisible braces came into being thanks to the existence of translucent polycrystalline alumina (TPA). A company called Ceradyne worked with NASA’s Advanced Ceramics Research department to develop TPA as a material intended to protect the infrared antennae of heat-seeking missile trackers. Simultaneously, another company called Unitek was considering a new design for dental braces that would be more aesthetically pleasing by foregoing the use of shiny metallic materials. They heard about TPA and believed it would be the perfect material for making invisible braces because it’s both translucent and strong enough to withstand prolonged use. Due to their instant popularity, invisible braces remain one of the most successful products the orthodontic industry has ever introduced.
8. Improved Radial Tires
In order to build parachutes strong enough to ensure a safe landing for the Viking spacecrafts on the Martian surface, NASA contracted the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to develop a fibrous material that is five times stronger than steel. The material they came with utilized a chain-like molecular structure that gave it incredible strength in comparison to its weight. Rightly deciding to make the most out of this new wonder material, Goodyear broadened the scope of the technology and went on to manufacture new consumer-grade radial tires with a tread life that’s estimated to be 10,000 miles greater than conventional radial tires.
7. Artificial Limbs
NASA’s collective innovations in robotics and shock-absorption materials have spurred the private sector to come up with new and improved solutions for human and animal prostheses. The artificial muscle systems with robotic sensing and actuation capabilities originally developed by Environmental Robots Inc. for use in NASA space robotics and extravehicular activities have now been adapted to create more functionally dynamic artificial limbs. Furthermore, other private-sector adaptations of NASA’s temper foam technology have made it possible to custom mold materials to give the natural appearance and feel of flesh, as well as providing a more comfortable connecting surface between the skin and the prosthesis.
6. Scratch-Resistant Lenses
There was once a time when if you were to drop your glasses on the ground, chances are you would wind up with a scratched or cracked lens. Thankfully, that was over 40 years ago. Since 1972 the FDA has required eyewear manufacturers to make lenses out of plastic instead of glass—a logical decision since plastic is cheaper, lighter, better at absorbing UV radiation, and less prone to shattering than glass. However, plastic also has one major drawback—it scratches very easily. That’s why NASA got it’s R&D department to create scratch-resistant plastic lenses.
Because of all the small particles floating around in space environments, NASA required a special coating to protect all their expensive space equipment, primarily astronaut helmet visors. Sensing an opportunity to gain a competitive market advantage, the Foster Grant glasses manufacturer licensed the NASA technology for use in its products. The special coating made its glasses lenses ten times more scratch-resistant than other uncoated plastic lenses.
5. Adjustable Smoke Detectors
NASA may not have invented the very first smoke detector, but they did make some big improvements on it. Their version, which was developed in collaboration with the Honeywell Corporation, became a much more practical consumer product because it was equipped with a self-charging nickel cadmium battery and adjustable detection levels.
Skylab was the first U.S. space station, and while on board the astronauts needed to know if a fire had started or if noxious gases were leaking into the environment. The adjustable smoke detector became an invaluable asset when it came to preventing false alarms.
4. Chemical Detection
NASA worked with Intelligent Optical Systems (IOS) to develop sensors that are moisture and pH-sensitive to warn of potentially dangerous and corrosive conditions in aircraft before any significant structural damage can occur. The sensor utilizes a specially-made optical fiber that is chemically sensitive and changes color in response to contact with specific chemicals.
IOS was also contracted by the U.S. Department of Defense to refine the sensors so they would be able to detect chemical warfare agents and other potential threats like toxic industrial compounds and nerve agents. After proving successful in this endeavor, IOS sold the chemically-sensitive fiber optic cables to several major automotive and aerospace companies, who were able to find a wide variety of uses for the devices, such as aiding experimentation with nontraditional power sources, and as an effective alarm system for detecting chemical emissions in large facilities.
3. Light-Emitting Diodes
Light-Emitting Diodes, or LEDs, works when an electric current is applied in the forward direction of a device and a light is emitted by a semiconductor diode. Red LEDs were initially developed by NASA for use in space shuttle plant growth experiments, however LEDs have since become an integral part of many other devices.
The award winning medical device WARP 10 is a handheld, high-intensity, LED unit developed by Quantum Devices Inc. The device is intended to help people suffering from arthritis, muscle spasms and stiffness by providing temporary pain relief in specific muscle and joint areas. It can also promote blood circulation and has been used by the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense as a non-invasive “soldier self-care” device that helps front-line forces treat minor injuries and pain, thereby improving combat endurance. The next-generation WARP 75 is a more advanced version that has been shown to relieve pain in bone marrow transplant patients and can help lessen the symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, bone atrophy and diabetic complications.
2. Freeze Drying
Eating in space can be a tricky business. Due to the microgravity environment, dry foods, condiments and powders will float around freely if not properly contained, which could lead to a very problematic situation. This is why freeze drying has become such an essential part of the space dining experience.
When preparing for the long-duration Apollo missions, NASA conducted extensive research into space food. This is how the freeze drying process was first developed, but it was Action Products that first introduced the technique to the masses. Concentrating on snack foods, the company would cook the food, quickly freeze it, and then slowly heat it in a vacuum chamber to remove the ice crystals formed by the freezing process. The final product preserves 98 percent of its nutritional value while reducing its weight by up to 80 percent. The dehydrated food can then be vacuum packed and stored for long periods of time until it’s ready to be consumed.
1. Water Filters
In case you didn’t know, astronauts drink their own pee, so the capability to convert contaminated water into pure water is an achievement they must hold in extremely high regard. Although water filtration technology has been around since the 1950s, NASA needed to devise a way to effectively keep water clean for extended periods of time to limit the chances 0f crew members getting sick as a result of bacteria.
Many companies have borrowed and implemented this technology over the years; chances are you have a less refined version of the system sitting on your kitchen counter. The silver ion filters used by companies like Brita were originally designed for the Apollo moon missions. It may not be advanced enough to let you drink your own urine, but at least it’s good enough to keep your water from tasting like it.