NASA has had a long and proud history of invention, and many of the technologies created under the program have brought space-age tech into the public domain. Some everyday products have been wrongly attributed to NASA, like Tang, but many others simply wouldn't exist without NASA scientists and engineers pushing the boundaries of human understanding.
Since its foundation, NASA has operated under its primary charter to:
"To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes." - NASA.
In pursuit of this noble cause, many new scientific discoveries, patents, and spinoff technologies have been created.
Daniel Lockney, program executive in technology transfer and spinoff partnerships at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. once told space.com that "We get better airplanes, or we get better weather forecasting from space stuff, sure, but we also get better-fed children. That kind of stuff, people don't necessarily associate."
Notable examples of such unsung developments include scratch-resistant plastics and super-streamlined swimsuits, but there are many more. The following space-age tech inventions and technologies are great examples.
This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. Memory foam was originally used to protect astronauts
Memory foam was first developed by NASA in 1966. The original brief was to make customizable seats for astronauts, in order to alleviate, in part, the effects of G-forces during takeoff and landing.
Engineers soon realized that the large variability in astronauts' physiques could cause a problem. They also noted that their body shapes change as they train.
This would mean, in theory, that individual customized seats might need to be adjusted for every flight. This was far from practical and finding another solution was imperative.
This solution was to devise a material that could mold the astronaut's shape and then return to its 'rest' state when not in use, hence the term "memory" foam.
NASA finally released memory foam into the public domain in the early 1980s.
Although initially very expensive to replicate by private enterprises, the cost of manufacture has dropped dramatically over time. Today, memory foam can be found in products ranging from mattresses to football helmet liners, and many other applications.
Most modern-day memory foam consists primarily of polyurethane, with some other additives to increase its viscosity and density - depending on the application. The foam varies widely between manufacturers, who consider the formulas a closely guarded secret.
2. Baby formula was devised by a couple of NASA dropouts
Many commercially available infant formulas contain nutritional enrichment ingredients that were originally devised by NASA. The agency was exploring the potential for algae to be used as a recycling agent for long-duration space travel. This eventually led to the creation of algae-based vegetable oil, later called Formulaid.
This additive was later commercially produced at Martek Biosciences Corporation in Maryland, by former NASA scientists who worked on the original project in the 1980s. They received a U.S. patent for Formulaid in 1994.
Formulaid has been touted as highly beneficial to infant mental and visual development and is also considered a good dietary supplement. The reason for this is that it contains two essential polyunsaturated fatty acids.
These are known as Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Arachidonic Acid (ARA). These two fatty acids can also be found in human milk and tended to be lacking in most instant formulas developed for young infants.
Both of these fatty acids have been shown to be very important for brain development, as well as being concentrated in human retinas. Despite their apparent importance, these fatty acids cannot be synthesized by the human body and, therefore, need to be assimilated from the diet.
Today, Formulaid is found in most enriched baby foods in the U.S., and as an additive to infant formulas in more than 65 countries around the world.
3. The dustbuster started out as lunar rock drill for NASA
The humble 'Dustbuster' was originally developed by NASA as part of their Apollo Space Mission. The original remit was to develop some form of portable, self-contained drill that could extract core samples from the surface of the Moon.
Black and Decker were approached to develop this tool, and they later devised a computer program to help optimize the design. The computer program was used to refine the technology to provide optimal motor power for minimal power consumption.
Their research ultimately led to the development of a series of domestic, battery-powered, hand-held devices. Foremost amongst them was the cordless miniaturized vacuum cleaner now immortalized under its original 1970's brand name, the 'Dustbuster'.
The very first commercially successful Dustbuster was introduced in January 1979, with countless copycats ever since. In 1995, the original 1979 Dustbuster was placed in the electrical collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, formally crystallizing its place in history.
4. Space blankets were the result of research by NASA
The name is probably a bit of a giveaway but your common, garden-variety 'Space Blanket' (often found in First Aid kits and camping equipment) is indeed the product of NASA research. Space blankets, if you have never used one, are lightweight and low-bulk blankets made of thin, heat-reflective plastic sheeting.
Their design is perfect for reducing heat loss from the body that would otherwise escape through radiation, water evaporation, or convection. The material was originally designed for use on the exterior surfaces of some spacecraft, for the same purpose.
The material, a metalized polyethylene terephthalate (MPET), was first developed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1964 for use in the U.S. Space Program.
The space blanket material is usually gold or silver in color and is capable of reflecting up to 97% of radiated heat. For space applications, a polyimide substrate is usually also employed, as it is more resistant to the hostile environment found in space.
5. Food safety (HACCP) helps keep food safe for both you and astronauts
Today, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) is an integral part of the food safety guidelines the world over. This standard was originally devised in the 1960s through a partnership between NASA and the Pillsbury Company.
At the time, NASA needed a means of ensuring any food sent to space was absolutely absent of disease-producing bacteria and other toxins. They looked to one of the industry leaders at that time, Pillsbury, to help them out.
Pillsbury and NASA quickly realized that since the conventional end-of-process testing for contaminants consumed the entire sample product, it was entirely counterproductive to the desired goal. What was needed was a system of testing at different points throughout the manufacturing process that would ensure all end products were to the same acceptable standard.
Pillsbury drew inspiration from NASA's engineering critical control point concept and applied this concept to the manufacturing process of food products. This strategy allowed the prevention of contamination during production, rather than evaluating the end product.
This process would prove highly successful and is now an industry-standard used in more than 150 countries around the world.
6. Nestle's freeze-drying process was widely used by NASA
Freeze drying, though not invented by NASA, was greatly improved on by the agency as a means of providing nutrition to their astronauts during long-duration Apollo missions.
Jacques-Arsène d'Arsonval is widely credited as the inventor of the freeze-drying process, in 1906. This was further developed by Nestle in 1938.
Freeze drying was widely used during the Second World War for the preservation of blood serum. After extensive research, NASA decided to employ and refine Nestle's freeze-drying technique for space food.
The freeze-drying process involves low-temperature dehydration. Cooked food is first frozen under low pressure, then the ice crystals formed during freezing are removed by sublimation in a vacuum chamber.
The food can then be reconstituted by adding water. The technique proved to be highly efficient, with the foods retaining close to 100% of their nutritional value, at a fraction of their weight prior to drying.
Typically freeze-dried foods retain about 20% of their original weight, though this is dependent on the particular food in question.
The technique is widely employed today to provide highly portable nutritious meals for use by backpackers, soldiers, disaster relief programs, and others.
7. Cochlear implants have improved the lives of many people
Adam Kissiah, a former NASA instrumentation engineer, devised and developed cochlear implants in the mid-1970s. He spent his lunch breaks and other free time at Kennedy Space Center's technical library studying how to apply engineering principles to improve hearing.
Kissiah was driven to develop the device by his frustration with his own poor hearing. He had been the recipient of three failed corrective surgeries to remedy the problem.
His research and development took around three years to complete, and in 1977 he received a patent for his cochlear implant. Traditional hearing aids of the time simply amplified sounds for the patient, while Kissiah's device actually improved hearing.
His cochlear implants were able to select speech signal information and convert them into electrical impulses in the patient's ear. It effectively bypasses the patient's natural hearing apparatus to send electrical impulses directly from the auditory nerve to the brain.
Since its invention, the lives of more than 320,000 patients, including those who have been deaf since birth, have been vastly improved by receiving corrective implants.
Kissiah was inducted into the Space Foundation's U.S. Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2003.
8. Infrared thermometers let you check temperature from a distance
NASA collaborated with Diatek Corporation to develop the infrared aural thermometer. This device measures thermal radiation emitted by the patient's eardrum in much the same way the temperature of stars and planets is measured.
It does this by inferring the temperature based on the thermal radiation emitted by the object being measured. Each device consists of a lens, which focuses light from the object being measured onto a detector, called a thermophile, which absorbs the infrared radiation and converts it into an electrical signal.
The device compensates for ambient temperature and converts the signal to temperature, which is then displayed.
The thermometer was developed with the support of NASA, through its Technology Affiliates Program.
The immediate benefit of this type of thermometer is that it avoids contact with mucous membranes, reducing the risk of infection, and so can be easily reused without needing to be sterilized first.
Today they are used in a wide range of applications, from monitoring hot spot temperatures in mechanical and electrical systems to checking patient temperatures.
9. Invisible braces have saved a lot of embarrassment
Invisible braces were jointly developed by Ceradyne and NASA's Advanced Ceramics Research program. Although today the braces have a relatively benign application (although teenagers the world over might disagree), they were originally intended for use in military technology.
With NASA, Ceradyne was trying to find a material that could be used in infrared radomes to track heat-seeking missiles. Radomes are structures that protect radar equipment. These need to be as transparent as possible, to allow radar waves to easily pass through.
They found that a transparent form of polycrystalline alumina (TPA) might just do the trick. Then, in 1986, Ceradyne was contacted by the Unitek Corporation/3M for suggestions of materials that were both transparent and strong enough to be used in dental applications.
Ceradyne suggested TPA, and the two companies began a collaboration that led to the development of invisible braces. Ceradyne are now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the tech giant 3M.
Although not for everyone, these kinds of braces can help to remove much of the embarrassment experienced by patients. By 1987, 300,000 units were being produced each month - making them one of the world's most successful orthodontic products.
10. The super soaker was invented by a former NASA engineer
The ubiquitous Super Soaker range of water guns was created by a former United States Air Force and NASA engineer, Dr. Lonnie Johnson. Dr. Johnson first conceived of the idea when experimenting with refrigeration systems in his bathroom.
At one point during his experiments, a powerful stream of water shot out of the equipment Johnson was working on. He instantly recognized the potential for making a pressurized water gun and set about making a prototype.
His prototype consisted of lengths of PVC pipe, acrylic glass, and an empty plastic soda bottle. He initially wanted to produce the toy himself but quickly realized that he needed more capital.
Johnson approached various toy companies, with no success, until he met the Vice President of Larami Toy Company in 1989 at a toy fair. After some refinements, the first super soaker, the 'Power Drencher', went on sale in 1990.
The brand name was changed to Super Soaker in 1991 and is now owned and distributed by Hasbro, under the Nerf brand. They have since generated more than $1 billion in sales, and the term 'Super Soaker' has become shorthand for any pressurized toy water gun.
11. Speedo LZR racer swimsuits were developed with the help of NASA
Speedo's infamous LZR Racer swimsuit was unveiled in 2008. It was so effective, that in 2009 it was banned by FINA from international competitive swimming contests as a form of "technological doping".
The LZR Racer was designed, with the aid of NASA, to be ultra-streamlined and low-friction. It is made from welded seams and multiple woven fabrics that can reduce drag by as much as six percent.
The suit also has a core stabilizer, which acts as a girdle to help reduce the swimmer's muscle movement. This feature is intended to help the swimmer maintain the proper angle in the water for extended periods of time.
Research into the effectiveness of the suit also found that air bubbles could be trapped between the swimmer's body and the suit. These help lift the swimmer slightly so that they can benefit from the lower friction against air when compared to water.
The ban came after athletes wearing the suit broke swimming world records in March 2008.
12. NASA-developed CMOS active pixel sensors are behind your selfies
The cameras in modern mobile phones can partially trace their origins to the work of NASA/JPL scientist Eric Fossum, which centered around the miniaturization of cameras for interplanetary missions.
To achieve this miniaturization, Fossum developed complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) image sensors that have now become widespread.
Imaging devices using CMOS had been attempted before, but no one had succeeded in making the technology marketable because the CMOS-generated images tended to suffer from signal noise and other issues.
Fossum's insight was to take advantage of a charge-coupled device (CCD) technology to help improve the quality. This resulted in the creation of CMOS active pixel sensors.
This technology has since come to dominate the digital imaging industry. It also effectively paved the way for the incorporation of miniature cameras within smartphones and other devices.
13. Scratch-resistant lenses were also a NASA spin-off
Scratch-resistant lenses were jointly developed by NASA's AMES Research Center and the Foster-Grant Corporation. Prior to their development, lenses were primarily made of ground and polished glass.
In 1972, the FDA passed a regulation requiring sunglasses and prescription lenses to be shatter-resistant. This led manufacturers to turn to plastic lenses instead of glass.
Although the plastic lenses were shatter-resistant, they were also prone to scratching, and so a solution was needed. This was found when NASA developed a series of scratch-resistant surfaces for use on astronaut helmets and other plastic aerospace equipment.
In 1983, Foster-Grant was awarded a license from NASA to further develop and produce scratch-resistant plastics. They combined their own research with NASA's and brought the technology to the market.
Today, most sunglasses, prescription lenses, and safety lenses in the U.S. and around the world are made from scratch-resistant plastics.
14. Artificial limbs have become space-age thanks to NASA
NASA has contributed immensely to the field of prosthetics and artificial limbs. Their continued investment in this field has led to the incorporation of many space-age advancements, like shock-absorption and cushioning.
This, in turn, has allowed the private sector to create improved prosthetics. By working with companies like Environmental Robot's Inc., advances such as artificial muscle systems, sensors, and actuators are quickly being refined and incorporated into modern, dynamic artificial limbs.
Other areas of development include the incorporation of NASA's memory foam technology and other custom-moldable materials into artificial limbs, making them more natural-looking.
Other advancements include designs and materials that reduce friction between the limb and the patient's skin, as well as reducing heat and moisture buildup.
15. Embedded web technology paved the way for IoT
Embedded Web Technology software, or EWB, was first developed by NASA. It was initially created to allow astronauts to operate and monitor experiments on the ISS remotely over the internet.
NASA later released the technology into the public domain, paving the way for the recent explosion in the Internet of Things technology.
One interesting example comes from TMIO LLC. They developed EWB technology to create their 'Connect Io' smart oven. This oven combines heating and cooling capabilities to both store and cook food on-demand, remotely.
Many other companies are using the same technology to deliver a wide swathe of over-the-internet control and management of devices. Devices like smart thermostats, smart light bulbs, smart locks, and more have all benefited from NASA's space-age EWB technology.
16. The computer mouse was also a product of the space-age
The humble computer mouse is yet another product of the space-age. Although you probably never give it a second thought today, these were revolutionary just a few decades ago.
The device started out as "one small and relatively simple component" of a broader goal, according to Bob Taylor, who provided NASA funding for research that led to the device in the early 1960s. Taylor and Doug Englebart (who worked on mouse tech at Stanford Research Institute) wanted to find a way to make computers more interactive and intuitive to use.
17. Another space-age spin-off was the insulin pump
Another space-age spin-off is the insulin pump. Technically called a Programmable Implantable Medication System (PIMS), it was invented by Robert E. Fischell of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
This device, when implanted into a human patient, can deliver precise, preprogrammed amounts of insulin over an extended period of time. They are, in effect, computerized replacements for the human pancreas.
Fischer was, at the time, a staff physicist and chief of technology at APL's Space Department, which was funded by the Goddard Space Flight Center. Since its creation, the insulin pump has helped save the lives of many diabetics around the world.
18. Laser eye surgery was also a spin-off from the space-age
Yet another space-age spin-off technology was laser eye surgery. LASIK, which is the most widely performed laser vision corrective surgery, helps reshape a patient's cornea using an excimer laser.
Most LASIK systems make use of laser radar (LADAR) eye-tracking to achieve the necessary precision. As the human eye naturally makes hundreds of tiny involuntary movements (called saccadic movements) every minute, this kind of capability is essential to ensure the surgery is successful.
The technology was originally developed through NASA's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The LADAR technology was originally developed under this program for use in the autonomous rendezvous and docking of space vehicles used to service satellites.
19. Air purifiers were originally developed for NASA
The humble air purifier is yet another piece of space-age spin-off tech. The technology was originally developed by NASA in order to help astronauts grow plants in space, and potentially on other worlds.
Back in the 1990s, NASA was looking for a way to remove ethylene from the air, in order to prevent plants from aging and fruit from ripening too soon. This led to the development of an ethylene scrubber that uses titanium oxide and UV light to chemically convert ethylene into trace amounts of water and carbon dioxide.
The first working model was launched on the Space Shuttle Columbia and installed onboard the ISS in 1995. Since then, the technology has been adapted for commercial and domestic air purifiers that you are probably familiar with.
20. Advancements in space-age tech led to the development of athletic shoes
Another product that had its start in the space-age is the athletic shoe. A process called "blow rubber molding" was first developed during the Apollo program, and would ultimately lead to the development of the modern sneaker.
"Following the establishment of this new molding process, a former NASA engineer named Frank Rudy pitched an idea for a suitable shock absorber to the Nike Corporation. Rudy's concept used a pad made of interconnected air cells placed under the heel and forefoot to cushion the blow. Sound familiar? With Rudy's pitch, Nike Air was born." - NASA.
21. Water filtration systems are also a NASA spin-off
Water filtration systems are another technology originally developed by NASA's Apollo program, which have been commercialized to great success.
"In the 1960s, NASA’s Manned Space Center (now known as Johnson Space Center) and the Garrett Corporation, Air Research Division, conducted a research program to develop a small, lightweight water purifier for the Apollo spacecraft that would require minimal power and would not need to be monitored around-the-clock by astronauts in orbit.
The 9-ounce purifier, slightly larger than a cigarette pack and completely chlorine-free, dispensed silver ions into the spacecraft’s water supply to successfully kill off bacteria. A NASA Technical Brief released around the time of the research reported that the silver ions did not 'impart an unpleasant taste to the water.'" - NASA.
Not long after this, companies like Carefree Clearwater Limited acquired permission to manufacture modified versions of the space agency's Electrolytic Silver Ion Cell for commercial and industrial purposes.
22. Wireless headsets were first developed for NASA
Another space-age spin-off is the wireless headset. Originally developed for astronauts during the Apollo program in the 1960s, they were first commercialized in the 1970s.
During the 70s, the technology was refined and miniaturized for airline pilots and has since become ubiquitous for use in business and pleasure.
Perhaps the most famous use of the original headphones was when Neil Armstrong delivered his immortal quote, during the first manned mission to the Moon. So, the next time you use a wireless headphone, remember that you are wearing a piece of history.
23. You can also thank the space-age for CAT scans
And finally, one last piece of NASA-developed technology - the CAT scan. Another product of the Apollo program, CAT scans are today a vital medical diagnostic tool.
First developed to identify imperfections in aerospace structures and components, the technology was publically released in 1993.
"Designed to be added to an existing real-time radiography system, its components include a high precision rotation/elevation manipulator, color image monitor, graphical user interface monitor, and PC compatible workstation.
Cross-sectional CT images are more detailed than radiographic images and the high-speed scanning feature offers the capability for 100 percent inspection in a production environment." - NASA.
So there you go, 15+ space-age inventions and technologies we use every day. Can you think of any others?
Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below.