More than four decades ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States started publishing “Spinoff,” a catalog of technology inventions and developments originally intended for space exploration and eventually applied to everyday life.
As of 2018, close to 2,000 space technologies have been successfully “ported over to civilian life” on Earth. Here are 15 of the most transforming NASA inventions changing and improving our lives:
Proper cushioning is an industry unto itself; people will gladly spend more for memory foam mattresses due to their durability and comfort. Visco-elastic cushioning is the invention of flight engineer Charles Yost, who developed a special pòlyurethane foam to improve survival odds in case of spacecraft impact. These days, memory foam can be found in motorcycle helmets, movie theater seats, athletic shoes, mattresses, and many other applications.
Ultraviolet-resistant sunglasses that offer enhanced vision can be purchased at the mall these days, but they originated as an advanced coatings project that NASA commissioned to improve astronaut helmets to filter the abundant UV rays in outer space. These days, skiers and welders enjoy astronaut-grade eye protection.
From Dustbusters to rechargeable drills, we can thank the Apollo space program for the development of cordless tools. Black & Decker engineers were initially tasked by NASA to develop software that could help optimize the functionality of Moon exploration equipment through reducing power consumption. Eventually, the idea of improving battery life prompted engineers to develop rechargeable, cordless tools.
Nutrient-Rich Baby Formula
The quest to send humans to Mars has made headlines in recent years, but NASA has worked on details related to this future mission since the 1980s. During those preparations, NASA discovered Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid abundant in algae that has been successfully cultivated in space.
The nutrients provided by omega-3 will be crucial in long-distance space missions. They also happen to be present in maternal milk, and thus DHA from algae is now added to 90 percent of baby formula.
Improved Cloud Computing
Versions of the NASA Structural Analysis Program has been adopted by various automakers and equipment manufacturers to improve their processes. In 2008, NASA sought to apply the principles of this program to unify and improve its vast computer networks. This effort, known as Project Nebula, resulted in the development of OpenStack, a cloud computing initiative that, among other things, allows to streamline business processes better as they relate to digital information.
There is a good reason reflective blankets used by paramedics to treat hypothermia victims are known as “space blankets.” NASA developed these insulated fabrics for the Apollo space program.
Advanced Digital Imaging
The technology that enables smartphone selfies was first developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1960s. Three decades later, advanced digital cameras equipped with tiny CMOS active pixel sensors were deployed on satellites and the space shuttle.
Food Safety Standards
The prepackaged meals astronauts consume during space missions are prepared under a set of strict measures originally developed in collaboration with the Pillsbury Company. These measures eventually became food safety standards under a method known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points.
The futuristic swimsuits that made a splash during the 2008 Beijing Olympics were developed as the result of a collaboration between Speedo and NASA. The famous athletic wear brand designed the fabric, but the testing was done at the NASA Langley Research Center, where wind tunnel analysis was applied to drag reduction modeling. Reducing drag will always be a fundamental goal of aerospace flight.
Some of the items found in today’s Meal-Ready-to-Eat (MRE) rations consumed by American soldiers are based on food science projects developed before the Apollo space program; it dates back to the Skylab days. The goal is to cut the weight of food ingredients while allowing them to keep most of their flavor and nutrients. Manufacturers around the world apply freeze-dried food techniques.
Invisible Dental Braces
NASA first developed the translucent ceramic material that allows dental braces to be extremely discreet as a coating for infrared antennas. This material is formally known as translucent polycrystalline alumina.
The equipment worn by modern firefighters not only resembles the suits worn by astronauts but also shares some of its protective features and functionality such as the inclusion of self-contained breathing apparatus. NASA has worked with the National Bureau of Fire Standards to develop protective suits and harnesses made from materials found on the outer layers of space rockets.
Vital Signs Monitoring
Remote monitoring of physiological conditions dates back to the Mercury space program. Astronauts boarding early spacecraft were electronically monitored during training, and these measurements were compared with readings taken during spaceflight. This technology is now found in virtually all intensive care units and emergency rooms across all continents.
Heartwarming videos of amputees testing their advanced prostheses are regularly uploaded to YouTube, and they can thank NASA’s robotics engineers for their efforts in developing space exploration robots that mimic the human skeletal system and biomechanics.
Water Filtration Systems
After the Apollo space program, NASA knew that bottled drinking water would not be sufficient for future missions. In the 1970s, NASA developed water filtration systems suitable for prolonged space exploration beyond Skylab, and thus iodine filter cartridges were introduced. These cartridges are now used by Earth explorers and by humanitarian relief teams working in remote areas where potable water systems are not readily available.
At a time when the White House has proposed cutting funding to NASA programs such as the International Space Station, the technologies listed here are a strong reminder of why such programs are vital to global interests.