23 Great NASA Spin-off Technologies

Everywhere you look around your home it is very likely that at least some of the technology you find has its origins in NASA-related innovations.

23 Great NASA Spin-off Technologies
1, 2

Everywhere you look your life has been touched by NASA space technology. Since 1976, there have been more than 1,500 documented NASA technologies that have improved our quality of lives and created many new industries.

Space

A Brief History of NASA: 60 Years of Exploring the Unknown

According to NASA, the Space Shuttle Program alone has generated more than 100 technology spin-offs. They have even created a fun and intuitive website to explore just where you can find NASA tech around your home and city.

The following table highlights a few notable spin-off technologies that have either come directly from NASA developments or have been developed by former NASA engineers. Some of these you might already be aware of but others are bound to surprise you.

It goes without saying that given NASA has led to the development of countless spin-off technologies over the years this list is far from exhaustive.

23 Great NASA Spin-off Technologies

1. NASA Developed the Supercritical Wing

Relevant Sector: Aerodynamics

When was it developed: 1960s

When was it publically released: 1972

As planes approach or break the sound barrier shock waves tend to stand on the aircraft's wings. This creates drag as air needs to flow over them. 

One NASA Engineer, Richard Whitcomb, developed an unconventional design during the late 1950s to mid-1960s in an attempt to combat the problem.  

"In the 1950s, Whitcomb created the area rule (wasp waist) design that gave supersonic aircraft the "pinched look" to reduce aerodynamic drag and increase transonic speed without added power. He then turned his attention to investigating different airfoils to weaken the shockwave and reduce the boundary layer separation. " - NASA.

This eventually led to the development of a modified F-8 Crusader to test the design.

NASA would later present its test data at a 1972 conference. It was evaluated by industry designers who found that most commercial companies would benefit from integrating the design features not for transonic flight but for fuel saving at sub Mach cruising speeds.

2. NASA Also Developed Winglets

Relevant Sector: Aerodynamics

When was it developed: 1970s

When was it publically released: 1980s

Many factors affect the aerodynamic drag on aircraft. It depends on the shape, size, inclination and flows conditions of air passing over and around the object in question. Three-dimensional wings, for instance, have an extra problem to overcome - Induced Drag (or drag from the lift).

This is a phenomenon of 3D drag generated by top vortices that wings generate during flight. Induced drag has been known about for many years and designers have attempted to reduce the effects of induced drag by playing around with the design of wings.

Advertisement

A solution was finally found by NASA in the mid-70s by the introduction of winglets. Winglets first appeared on commercial aircraft in the mid-1980s when Boeing began to introduce them on the 747-400 jetliners. They have since become ubiquitous on commercial airlines and are estimated to save 4 billion gallons (15 billion liters) of jet fuel.

Winglets also help reduce carbon dioxide emissions as the result of the reduced fuel use, and also help reduce aircraft noise on takeoffs and landings.

NASA Spinoffs Winglets
Source: NASA

3. Cloud Computing Was Inspired by NASA Innovations

Relevant Sector: Computing

When was it developed: 2008

When was it publically released: 2010

In 2008, NASA was attempting to standardize their websites. This would eventually lead to a solution that would inspire cloud computing technology. 

Their solution was the development of NASA.net that provided a standard set of tools and methods for web developers. This would quickly develop and pace and an infrastructure service was also soon developed. 

Advertisement

The NASA design team soon came to realize was that they needed to create a "cloud computing service". Today this technology has created an entirely new industry in open source cloud services that hundreds of millions of people use every single day. 

4. Invisible Braces Started Out As Radomes

Relevant Sector: Cosmetics

When was it developed: 1980s

When was it publically released: 1986

Invisible braces were a product of collaborative work between NASA's Advanced Ceramics Research program and Ceradayne. Despite their current cosmetic application, the technology was actually originally developed for use in war.

NASA was trying to find a material that could be used for infrared radomes in order to track heat-seeking missiles. These domes are used to protect delicate radar equipment and needed to be as transparent as possible to allow radar energy to pass through it.

Advertisement

Their testing led to the development of a material called polycrystalline alumina (TPA) which ticked all the boxes. 

Almost by coincidence Unitek Corporation/3M later contacted Ceradyne about any information on materials strong enough, and transparent, that could have dental applications. TPA seemed perfect, with exceptions, and the two organization collaborated to develop invisible braces in the late 1980s.

They were an immediate commercial success and in 1987 300,000 units were produced a month.

NASA Spinoffs Invisible Braces
Source: Sputnikcccp/Wikimedia Commons

5. You Can Thank NASA For Polyimide Thermal Insulating Foam 

Relevant Sector: Energy Efficiency/Thermal Insulation

When was it developed: 2000s

When was it publically released: 2007

Polyimide Insulating foam (called TEEK) was the winner of NASA's 2007 Commercial Invention of the Year. It is lightweight, fire-resistant and can be formed into many shapes.

At Langley Research Center, Erik Weiser and his colleagues in the Advanced Materials and Processing Branch created the material whilst working with a new substance for fabricating composites for use in supersonic aircraft.

Advertisement

Like many great inventions in history, it was developed by mistake and was found to have many advantages over existing commercially produced alternatives.

"Weiser explains, polyimide foams perform well across a broad range of temperatures, noting that the NASA TEEK foams provide effective structural insulation up to 600 °F and down to cryogenic temperatures." - NASA.

NASA Spinoff Insulating Foam
Source: NASA

6. Memory Foam Is Another NASA Innovation

Relevant Sector: Ergonomics

When was it developed: 1966

When was it publically released: Early 1980s

Memory foam was originally designed for customizable seats for astronauts as their body shapes varied widely. Engineers had realized that the large variability between astronauts physiques could cause a problem.

They also noted that their body shapes change as they train.

Their solution was to produce a material that could mold and fit the astronaut's shape and return to a 'rest' position when not in use.

Advertisement

The technology was released in the early 1980s and commercialization began in earnest. Today it is widely applied in many applications from mattresses to other cushioning.

NASA Spinoffs Memory Foam
Source: GFDL/Wikimedia Commons

7. The Geared Turbofan Engine Was Partly Developed by NASA

Relevant Sector: Aerospace

When was it developed: 2000s

When was it publically released: 2013

During the mid-2000s gas prices were on the rise. NASA established the Subsonic Fixed Wing Project in an attempt to tackle the problem and try to improve fuel-efficiency and noise-reduction.

Since the late 1990s Pratt and Whitney were also working on solutions to the inherent long-known inefficiency of turbofan engines at the time. These were and are still ubiquitous on many commercial aircraft around the world.

The solution, it turned out, appeared to be a paradox. Modern turbofan fans are more efficient the slower they spin but the turbines themselves are more efficient at higher rates of spin. What to do?

Advertisement

The solution was the Geared Turbofan Engine.

NASA and Pratt and Whitney worked together to develop Pratt & Whitney's PurePower Geared Turbofan (GTF) family of engines that were later certified by Transport Canada in 2013.

NASA spinoff Geared Turbofan Engine
Source: NASA

8. Space Blankets/Emergency Blankets Come From NASA

Relevant Sector: Health and Medicine

When was it developed: 1964

When was it publically released: 1970s

'Space Blankets' were first developed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center where they succeeded in producing a new material - metalized polyethylene terephthalate (MPET). They found it was an excellent insulator and capable of reflecting 97% of radiated heat.

It was originally developed to be a lightweight, yet strong, material to protect the delicate instruments (and crew) from extreme temperature fluctuations in space.

Spin-off applications include their use in first aid kits, camping equipment and many other applications where thermal insulation is required.

Advertisement
NASA spinoffs Space Blanket
Source: Firetwister/Wikimedia Commons

9. Food Safety Is A Surprising NASA spin-off

Relevant Sector: Health and Medicine

When was it developed: 1960s

When was it publically released: 1972

NASA collaborated with the Pillsbury Company during the 1960s to develop a means of ensuring any food sent into space was completely pathogen free. After realizing that contemporary testing at the time actually completely consumed the food product they devised a system of point testing throughout the manufacturing process.

This led to the developed of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety testing that is an integral part of Food Safety Guidelines around the world today.

After development was complete with NASA, Pillsbury had a recall on one of their products called Farina. One employee, who worked in the process with NASA, suggested the company adopt the HACCP process.

This process proved to be highly effective and is used as the standard for Food Safety Testing in over 150 countries around the world.

NASA Spinoffs Food Safety
Source: Maksym Kozlenko/Wikimedia Commons

10. Cochlear Implants Exist Because Of One Dedicated NASA Engineer

Relevant Sector: Health and Medicine

When was it developed: 1970s

When was it publically released: 1977

Cochlear implants were developed and designed by Adam Kissiah (a NASA Engineer) during the mid-1970s. He worked on this new technology during his lunch breaks at the Kennedy Space Centre.

He was inspired to do so by his frustration with his own poor hearing.

After three solid years of study and trial and error, Adam completed a prototype in 1977 for which he received a patent. At the time hearing aids only amplified sounds for the hard of hearing but Adam worked in a completely different way.

His were able to convert speech acoustic signals into electrical impulses that were transferred to the auditory nerve of the patient. Thereby completely bypassing the patients defective natural hearing apparatus.

NASA spingoffs Cochlear implants
Source: BruceBlaus/Wikimedia Commons

11. Baby Formula Is Another NASA spin-off

Relevant Sector: Health and Medicine

When was it developed: 1980s

When was it publically released: 1994

Baby formula was created as part of an experiment as part of CELSS (Closed Environment Life Support System) program for NASA. This was to see if algae could be used as a recycling agent for long-duration space travel.

Formulaid is believed to be 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 - Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Arachidonic Acid (ARA).

Martek Biosciences Corporation initially patented it as Formulaid in 1994.

NASA spinoff Baby Food
Source: Lars Plougmann/Flickr

12. Artificial Hearts Came From Space Shuttle Fuel Pumps

Relevant Sector: Health and Medicine

When was it developed: 1990s

When was it publically released: 2001

Space shuttle fuel pumps would later lead to the development of a miniaturized ventricular assist pump by NASA and renowned heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey.

This tiny pump (only 5cm long and 2.5 cm in diameter and weighing only 113 grams) would yield a much-needed solution to various debilitating cardiac diseases. 

The MicroMed DeBakey VAD is a ventricular assist device that functions as a "bridge to heart transplant" by pumping blood throughout the body to keep critically ill patients alive until a donor's heart is available.

NASA spinoffs Artificial Heart
Source: NASA

13. Air Purifiers Are Another NASA spin-off

Relevant Sector: Health and Medicine

When was it developed: 1990s

When was it publically released: 2013

NASA originally developed the technology (ethylene scrubbers) to prolong plant growth in space without the use of filters.

It was later developed by a company for use in protecting perishable foods from fowling by removing waste gasses. Air purifiers also had the benefit of removing airborne particles, pathogens, organic compounds, and molds.

NASA spinoffs Air Purifiers
Source: NASA

14. NASA Helped Develop Effective Osteoporosis Treatment

Relevant Sector: Health and Medicine

When was it developed: 2000s

When was it publically released: 2011

NASA's work studying Rodents in Zero-G in the International Space Station led to the development of new drugs to tackle bone loss on Earth. This research was inspired by the noticeable health detriment experienced by Astronauts during long-durations in low to zero gravity environments.

Especially loss of muscle and bone density.

Sclerostin antibody under development by Amgen for Osteoporosis was later validated on Space Shuttle and Space Station Missions. They showed a marked reduction and cessation of bone loss in mice.

In human trials, the drug reduced vertebral fractures by 68 percent and hip fractures by 40 percent.

15. NASA Also Helped Develop a Special Skin Cream

Relevant Sector: Health and Medicine

When was it developed: 2000s

When was it publically released: 2013

Using a NASA-patented bioreactor, NASA was able to produce agents from human fibroblasts. This bioreactor was originally developed to replicate micro-gravity conditions in a laboratory.

This enabled scientists to allow tissue-growth to grow in 3D, rather than the '2D' on a flat surface as is traditional observed, it was perfect for simulating natural growth within living animals like humans.

It also allowed for the synthesis of biomolecules in large quantities and at high purity. Some these showed to have regenerative qualities, including fibroblasts, that help hold cell together.

NASA licensed their patent for producing a regenerative fibroblast extract (using the NASA bioreactor) to a Technology Applications International Corp. in 2013. They began to produce a cosmetic skin care product that was infused with the NASA bioreactor made fibroblasts to promote skin repair and rejuvenation.

Marketed under Renuell Inc their product is called Re-Juvel that can be used by both men and women. It works by stimulation of natural cellular activity to rebuild and toughen the skin. 

NASA spinoffs Skin Cream
Source: Amazon

16. NASA Helped Develop Bi-Polar Forceps For Brain Surgery

Relevant Sector: Health and Medicine

When was it developed: 1970s

When was it publically released: 1983

Bi-polar forceps are used during delicate surgery where precision an reliability are vitally (literally)  important. These tools use electricity to cut and cauterize patient tissue.

But there is a problem, this inherently produces heat which risks accidentally damaging or singeing localized healthy tissue. A solution was found, thanks to NASA, to draw this excess heat away by using heat pipes.

NASA spinoffs Bi-polar Forceps
Source: NASA

17. Spare Space Shuttle Fuel is Great For Landmine Removal Devices

Relevant Sector: Health and Safety/Military Applications

When was it developed: 1980s

When was it publically released: 1999

Space Shuttle Rocket Fuel turns out to be great for ridding the world of one of the many leftovers of brutal wars - Landmines.

Back in the late 1990s leftover Shuttle Fuel was turned into flares that destroyed land mines where they are buried without the need for using explosives. These flares were developed with the aid of Thiokol Propulsion.

The devices burn through the outer casing of mines and neutralize the explosives inside.

NASA spinoffs landmine disposal flares
Source: NASA

 

18. The 'Dustbuster' Is an Indirect Result of NASA Technology

Relevant Sector: Home appliance

When was it developed: 1960s

When was it publically released: 1979

This 'Dustbuster' was originally developed as part of NASA's Apollo Space Mission. The remit was to develop a small, portable, self-contained drill that could extract samples from exo-surfaces like on the Moon.

The tech was developed with the aid of Black and Decker. This program led to the development of many small handheld power tools including the Dustbuster that was released in 1979.

NASA Spinoffs Dustbuster
Source: Black and Decker

19. NASA Developed the Tech Found in Magnetic Fluid Speakers

Relevant Sector: Electronics

When was it developed: 1960s

When was it publically released: 1980s

During the 1960s NASA had to solve the problem of moving liquid fuel around an engine without the benefit of gravity. Their solution was to magnetize the liquid with small particles of iron oxide and move it around using magnetic fields.

After some similar applications in the 1980s, the technology was later used in 2012 by the Sony Corporation. Through their in-house research, integrated ferrofluid technology was introduced into their speaker systems.

This led a commercial line of slim speakers, which the company says produces a louder, cleaner sound than others of comparable size.

NASA Spinoffs Magnetic Fluid Speakers
Source: Sony

 

20. You Can Thank NASA For Scratch Resistant Lenses

Relevant Sector: Miscellaneous

When was it developed: 1983

When was it publically released: 1989

The product of collaboration between NASA and the Foster-Grant Corporation Scratch Resistant Lenses were born. Prior to its development lenses were primarily made of ground and polished glass.

The FDA, in 1972, passed a regulation requiring sunglasses and prescription lenses to become shatter resistant. This led manufacturers to turn to plastic lenses instead of glass.

NASA spinoffs Scratch Resistant Lenses
Source: Pixabay

21. The Super-Soaker Was Developed By a NASA Engineer

Relevant Sector: Miscellaneous/Toys

When was it developed: 1980s

When was it publically released: 1990

Although not technically speaking a NASA spin-off the ubiquitous "Super Soaker" was developed by a NASA Engineer, Dr. Lonnie Johnson. He conceived of the idea whilst experimenting with refrigeration systems in his bathroom.

After an initial prototype was developed, he tried to sell it to various companies until he was finally bankrolled by the Larami Toy Company in 1989. After some refinements, it went on sale in 1990 as the "Power Drencher". This was changed to "Super Soaker" in 1991.

22. Without CMOS Active Pixel Sensors Selfies Might Not Exist

Relevant Sector: Photography

When was it developed: 1980s

When was it publically released: 1993

Modern digital cameras, either standalone or integrated into mobile phones, can trace their origins to the work of NASA and JPL, namely engineer Eric Fossum. His groundbreaking work required the miniaturization of cameras for interplanetary NASA missions and other NASA programs like the Hubble Space Telescope.

To achieve this Fossum developed complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensors that have now become widespread in the public domain.  

NASA spinoffs CMOS
Source: Pixabay

23. The Wireless Headset Is Much Older Than You Think

Relevant Sector: Telecommunications

When was it developed: 1960s

When was it publically released: 1970s

Wireless communication headsets were initially developed for astronauts during the Apollo Program and were instrumental for carrying Neil Armstrong's famous words from the Moon.

This technology was refined and miniaturized for use with airline pilots during the 1970s. This technology has continued to develop over the decades and is ubiquitous in our modern world. Mobile headsets provide greater efficiency and flexibility for everyone from professionals conducting business to consumers playing video games.

NASA spinoffs wireless headset
Source: Tullio Saba/Flickr

 

Advertisement