Without the availability of oxygen and gravity, creating an environment that sustains human life can take a lot of experimentation; something as simple as “I want a bowl of cereal” becomes a science project.
Not surprisingly, one of the most prolific invention engines the world has ever seen is the NASA Space Program.
A wide variety of gadgets and products we take for granted are the result of space exploration, invented for use in space flight, inspired by a product created for astronauts, or the result of experiments undertaken in space.
Many of the innovations that come from space exploration often don’t get the credit they deserve – at least not properly attributed to an industry that requires a specific cut of creative, intelligent, brave, and borderline-crazy individuals.
The following article explores 10 innovations essential to modern life that most people don’t realize came directly or indirectly from NASA and other science experimenting bodies.
Athletic Shoe Insoles
Spacesuits created for the Apollo missions included boots designed to add a spring to the astronaut steps while on the Moon. Athletic shoe companies soon capitalized on the technology to create insoles that rebounded the energy from an athlete’s foot hitting the ground to provide the athlete with extra lift.
“Blow rubber molding,” a process used to produce space helmets, was used to create athletic shoe soles that were filled with shock-abosrbing materials. After being rejected by various shoe manufacturers, Frank Rudy, a former NASA engineer, pitched the concept to Nike Corporation in 1977. His idea was to use interconnected air cells in pad form to cushion the blow in athletic shoes – and with that, Nike Air was born.
Fun Fact: The first shoe produced commercially using Nike Air technology was the Nike Tailwind in 1979. Sales really took off with the introduction of the Nike Air Force series of basketball shoes in 1982.
Although the first digital camera was built by Eastman Kodak in 1975, the first to develop the concept was JPL engineer Eugene Lally, who described the use of mosaic photosensors to digitize light signals and produce still images in the 1960s. An evolved version of this technology is now standard in cell phones and computer cameras.
In the 1990s, a JPL team improved complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensors. This allowed much smaller cameras on interplanetary spacecraft without sacrificing image quality. The JPL team leader, Eric Fossum, realized that the CMOS active-pixel sensor (CMOS-APS) could be useful in earth-bound applications as well.In 1995, he and some colleagues founded Photobit, a California company that licensed the JPL technology.
Fun Fact: The first mobile phone was the DynaTAC 8000x, produced in 1983 by Motorola. It looked like a regular phone without wires. The DynaTAC 8000x took 10 hours to charge, and the battery lasted only about 30 minutes.
Cordless Shop Tools
Is there a home workshop now that doesn’t have a cordless screwdriver and cordless drill? NASA needed a surefire tool for astronauts to use for sampling rocks on the Moon. They had worked with Black & Decker to develop a zero-impact wrench for use in the Gemini program and teamed up with them again for a cordless rotary hammer drill for Apollo astronauts.
Before going into space, these products were both tested at NASA in anti-gravity conditions, either under water or aboard planes during parabola flights.
Fun Fact: NASA worked with Black & Decker on this project, which later came out with the Dust Buster hand-held vacuum cleaner. Black & Decker has since become one of the top brands for cordless shop tools.
The filters used in your kitchen tap, refrigerator tap, or specially-equipped pitcher to remove the impurities from water are the result of NASA trying to figure out how to keep the water clean on space flights. Due to a lack of storage space, astronauts had to drink the same supply of water over and over again. Yes, that means just what you think it does. It makes tap-water impurities seem a bit tame.
Fun Fact: Tap water costs less than a penny a gallon, or about three cents a gallon with an at-home water filtration system. Bottled water averages about $3.00 a gallon and is not as clean as the water produced by at-home water filtration systems.
NASA started building satellites that could talk to people on the ground well before humankind started sending folks into space in 1961. Technology has continued to evolve ever since.
The global positioning systems (GPS) we use today let us communicate, figure out where we are in the universe, and receive travel directions literally through thin air.
Fun Fact: The first GPS, called Navstar, was initially launched in 1978. the most recent version was launched aboard a SpaceX flight in 2018. Navstar includes 24 main GPS satellites that orbit Earth every 12 hours. Navstar GPS is owned and controlled by the U.S. Dept. of Defense.
NASA’s Langley Research Center developed the concept of grooved roads in the 1960s to reduce the frequency of aircraft tire hydroplaning. Carving or molding a series of long, shallow channels into asphalt or concrete roads and runways diverts excess water from the surface. This improves tire grip, significantly reducing skidding and hydroplaning, preventing accidents and saving lives.
NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) worked together in 1967 to make safety grooving an accepted technique to improve runways. Since then, the basic concept has also been applied to swimming pools, pedestrian crosswalks, sidewalks, and animal pens.
Fun Fact: Concrete is the most consumed material in the world, with more than 10 billion tons produced annually. That averages out to three tons of concrete for each person on earth each year.
Temper foam, also called memory foam, is the most widely used NASA spinoff. Memory foam is an open-cell, polyurethane-silicon plastic initially developed by NASA in 1966 to lessen the impact during landings. Its returns to its original shape after being compressed to as small as 10 percent of its original size.
Over the years, temper foam has been used in football helmets for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s and 1980s, to comfort the feet of untold millions, and to prevent bedsores in bedridden patients. It’s now common in mattresses, pillows, cushions and many more products.
Fun Fact: The density of memory foam means that common allergens such as pet dander and dust mites have nowhere to hide. Polyurethane foam fibers also deter allergen collection, making memory foam pillows and mattresses a good choice for allergy sufferers.
NASA developed a scratch-resistant coating to lessen the damage to astronaut visors from space dirt and particles while on spacewalks. The optical industry eventually adopted the technology, resulting in eyeglasses that were 10X more scratch-resistant than those previously available.
NASA’s Ames Research Center unintentionally planted a seed for scratch-resistant plastic in the process of developing a water purification system. They used that knowledge to invent the coating for the astronaut visors. In 1983, Foster-Grant licensed the technology for use with plastic eyeglass lenses.
Fun Fact: About 198 million adult Americans use prescription eyeglasses, contacts, non-prescription reading glasses, and magnifying glasses. That’s nearly 76% of the entire adult population. Over 223 million Americans wear non-prescription sunglasses on a regular basis.
Studless Winter Tires
Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. developed a fiber material for NASA in the 1970s to use as parachute shrouds for Viking landers on Mars trips. The fiber includes a chain-like molecular structure that is incredibly strong in proportion to its weight.
The company later decided to adapt the material for use in its studless radial tires for winter use, resulting in a new tire belt that was five times stronger than steel. The new belt also increased average tread life by 10,000 miles.
Fun Fact: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s largest tire manufacturer is Lego. They produce about 318 million tires per year along with 70 billion Lego bricks. There are 62 Lego bricks for every human being on Earth.
Video conferencing is easy and now a common occurence. Dozens or hundreds of people from anywhere in the world can talk to each other using a toll-free number or see each other via computer by following a meeting link.
Behind the scenes, though, conference calling and video conferencing require a significant amount of complex technology that was non-existent until the 1980s. NASA invented the technology now used daily by millions around the world to improve how its astronauts, engineers, and technicians communicate.
Fun Fact: In 2020, Zoom averaged over 300 million users per day and Google Meet averaged over 100 million. In 2021, Microsoft Teams had 250 million users daily. More than 324 million people currently use Cisco WebEx.
In this article we’ve touched on just a few of the ways in which space exploration has improved the everyday lives of people around the world. As a result of Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, the International Space Station and other space programs, numerous products have been created that improve our ability to live healthy lifestyles, protect our environment, increase public safety, and more.
If you’ve enjoyed the article, be on the lookout for others we are publishing in the series, like this one about 10 medical innovations that came from space technology.
Additional information about NASA technologies that benefit life on Earth can be found on the NASA Spinoff site online.
Here’s Another Cool Result of Space Exploration …
The Zero-G Experience®
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