NASA has a long history of invention and many technologies created under the program have brought space age tech to the public domain. Some technologies are wrongly attributed to NASA like Velcro and Tang, but many others simply wouldn't exist without NASA scientists and engineers pushing the boundaries of human understanding.
Since it founding, 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. recently 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 include scratch-resistant plastics to 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 to alleviate, in part, the effects of G forces during takeoff and landing.
Engineers soon realized that the large variability between astronauts physiques could cause a problem. They also noted that their body shapes change as they train.
This would mean, in theory, that individual custom-seats might need to be changed for every flight. This was far from practical and so another solution needed to be found.
Their solution was to devise a material that could mold to the astronaut's shape and 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 1980's.
Although initially very expensive to replicate by private enterprises the cost of manufacture has dropped dramatically over time. Today, it can be found in many products ranging from mattresses to sports helmet liners to many others applications.
Most modern-day memory foam primarily consists of polyurethane with some other additives to increase its viscosity and density - depending on the application. Foam varies widely between manufacturers with many foam formulas being 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 devised by NASA. They were exploring the potential for algae to be used as a recycling agent for long-duration space travel that later led to the discovery of Formulaid.
This algae-based vegetable oil was later commercially produced by Martek Biosciences Corporation in Maryland by former NASA scientists who worked on the project in the 1980's. They received a U.S. patent for Formulaid in 1994.
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.
These are known as Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Arachidonic Acid (ARA). Coincidentally these two fatty acids can also be found in human milk and tend to be lacking in instant formulas for young infants.
Both of these fatty acids have been shown to be very important for brain grey matter, as well as being concentrated in human retinas. Despite there apparent importance they cannot be synthesized by the human body and, therefore, need to be assimilated from your diet.
Today, it is found in most U.S. enriched baby foods and as an additive to infant formulas in over 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 programme was used to refine the technology to provide maximal 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 by its original 1970's brand name the 'Dustbuster'.
The very first commercially successful machine was introduced in January 1979 with countless copycats ever since. In 1995, the original 1979 Dustbuster was placed into their electrical collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, formally crystallizing its place in history forever.
4. Space Blankets Were the Result of Research by NASA
The name is probably a bit of a giveaway but your common and garden 'Space Blanket' (often found in First Aid kits and camping equipment) is indeed the product of NASA research. Space blankets, if you didn't know, are low-weight and low bulk blankets made of heat-reflective thin 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, however, originally designed for use on the exterior surfaces of some spacecraft, for much the same purpose.
It was first developed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1964for use in the U.S. Space Program. The managed to produce a metalized polyethylene terephthalate (MPET),
Space blanket material is usually gold or silver in color and is capable of reflecting up to 97% of radiated heat. For space applications, polyamide 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 You and Astronauts
Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) is today, an integral part of the food safety guidelines the world over. It was originally devised in the 1960's through a partnership with NASA and the Pillsbury Company.
NASA, at the time, 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 conventional end of process testing consumed the entire sample product and was entirely counterproductive to the desired goal. What was needed was a system of testing at 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 its concepts to the manufacturing process of food products. This strategy allowed for the prevention of contamination rather than evaluating the end product.
It would prove highly successful as in now an industry standard in over 150 countries around the world.
6. Nestle's Freeze Drying Process Was Widely Used by NASA
Freeze drying, though not technically invented by NASA, was mastered by them. NASA required 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 process in 1906 but was later mastered by Nestle in 1938.
Freeze drying was widely used during the Second World War for blood serum preservation. After extensive research, they decided to employ and refine a freeze-drying Nestle's technique for space food.
The process involves foods being cooked then quickly frozen.
To eat the products were then slowly reheated in a vacuum chamber to remove the ice crystals that form during the freezing process. The technique proved to be highly efficient with close to 100% of the nutritional value being preserved at a fraction of the weight prior to drying.
Typically freeze-dried foods are about 20% of the original food weight, though this is dependent on the particular food in question.
The technique is widely employed today to provide simple nutritious meals available to handicapped and otherwise homebound senior adults unable to take advantage of existing meal programs.
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-1970's. He used his lunch breaks and other free time to study the effects of engineering principles on the middle ear at Kennedy Space Center's technical library.
Kissiah was driven to develop the device by his frustration with his own poor hearing. He was also the recipient of three failed corrective surgeries to remedy the problem.
His research and development took around 3 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, Adam's device worked very differently indeed.
His cochlear implants are 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 sends electrical impulses to different regions of their auditory nerve to the brain.
Since its invention over 320,000 patients lives has been infinitely improved by receiving these corrective implants. These have including patients who have been deaf since birth.
Adam was inducted into the Space Foundation's U.S. Space Technology Hall of Fame for his work in 2003.
8. Infrared Ear Thermometers Let You Check Someone's 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 also measured.
It does this by inferring the temperature based on the thermal (black-body) radiation emitted by an object being measured. Each device consists of a lens to focus infrared thermal energy onto a detector which converts the energy into an electrical signal.
This signal is then converted to temperature, after being ambient temperature is compensated, and displayed on the device.
It was developed with the support of NASA through their Technology Affiliates Program.
The immediate benefit of this device is that it avoids contact with mucous membranes and can easily be used for measuring temperatures of newborn patients.
Today they 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 with Ceradyne and NASA's Advanced Ceramics Research program. Although today it has a very benign application it was 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 that needs to be as transparent as possible for radar energy to pass through it.
They found that a transparent form of polycrystalline alumina (TPA) might just do the trick. Ceradyne were contacted in 1986 by the Unitek Corporation/3M for suggestions of materials strong enough for dental applications that were also transparent.
Ceradyne suggested TPA and the two organizations began a collaboration that led to the development of invisible braces, aka Transcend Brackets. Ceradyne are now a wholly owned subsidiary of the tech giant 3M.
These kinds of braces remove much of the embarrassment historically experienced by patients. As of 1987 300,000 units were being produced a month - this has made them one of the world's most successful orthodontic products in history.
It should be noted that these kinds of braces are not for everyone, however.
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. Lonnie conceived of the idea when experimenting with refrigeration systems in his bathroom.
During his experiments, a powerful stream of water was shot out of the equipment he 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 quickly realized the capital he needed was far in excess of his needs.
He approached various toy brands 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, 'Power Drencher', went on sale in 1990.
The brand name changed to Super Soaker in 1991 and is now owned and distributed by Hasbro under the Nerf Brand. They have since become one of the most popular toys ever produced 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. This is the swimsuit that was banned from international competitive swimming contests in 2009 by FINA.
It was designed with the aid of NASA to produce an ultra-streamlined and low friction swimming suit. The LZR Racer is made from welded seams and multiple woven fabrics that can reduce drag by as much as six percent.
It also has a core stabilizer that acts as a girdle in order to help reduce swimmer 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. This helps lift the swimmer slightly so they could benefit from the lower friction against air when compared to water.
Its 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
Modern mobile phones and GoPro cameras can partially trace their origins to the work of NASA/JPL scientist Eric Fossum. His work centered around the miniaturization of cameras for interplanetary missions.
To achieve this Fossum developed complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensors that have now become widespread in the public domain.
Imaging devices using CMOS had been attempted before in the 1960's by none had succeeded in making the technology marketable. CMOS generated images tended to suffer from signal noise and other issues.
Fossum's insight was to take advantage 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 cameras within smartphones and other devices.
13. Scratch Resistant Lenses
Scratch Resistant Lenses were jointly developed by NASA's AMES Research Center and the Foster-Grant Corporation. 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.
As great as plastic was an alternative it was prone to scratching - a solution was needed. It was found when NASA developed a series of scratch-resistant surfaces for astronaut helmets and other plastic aerospace equipment.
Foster-Grant were awarded a license from NASA in 1983 to further develop and produce scratch-resistant plastics. They combined their own research with NASA's and brought the technology to market.
Today most sunglasses, prescription lenses, 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-absorbing and cushioning.
This has allowed for the creation (in the private sector) of improved prosthetics for humans and animals alike. By working with companies like Environmental Robot's Inc other developments like artificial muscle systems, sensors and actuators are quickly being refined and incorporated into modern dynamic artificial limbs.
Other areas of development include the commercial adaptation of NASA's memory foam technology. These developments are allowing for custom-moldable materials to be incorporated into artificial limbs making them more natural looking.
Other applications include reducing 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 created to allow astronauts to operate and monitor experiments on the ISS remotely over the internet.
NASA later released the technology to the public domain paving the way for the recent explosion in the Internet of Things technology.
One interesting example comes from companies like TMIO LLC. They used the technology and further developed it, to create their 'Connect Io' smart oven. This oven combines heating and cooling capabilities to store and cook food on demand, remotely.
Many other companies are also using the same principle to deliver a wide swathe of over-the-internet control and management of devices. Devices like smart thermostat's, smart light bulbs, smart locks and more gadgets have all benefited from the NASA space-age technology.