NASA has accomplished a lot since its founding 53 years ago in July of 1958. In addition to sending humans to the Moon, NASA has also been behind some of the biggest technological breakthroughs of our time. Many of these advances can be found in products we use as part of our daily lives.
For the most part, these discoveries were made solving problems astronauts would face while exploring space. Weather instruments, scratch-resistant glass, and other tools needed to be perfected in order to be reliable when lives depend on it. Many of these inventions seem fairly simple, but for their time they were marvels of technology.
Through a mandate from Congress since its founding, NASA has been licensing its technologies to the private sector since its initial launch in the late 1950s.
Here are five everyday products made possible by NASA.
Space may look like a large, empty mass of nothingness that fills the galaxy, occasionally disrupted by a star system here and there. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Space is home to particles of dirt, dust, and debris from asteroids, comets, and other galactic masses. Because of this, equipment used by astronauts is constantly coming in contact with matter that could scratch their helmets, making it hard for them to see while doing the detailed work they do outside of a spacecraft.
For this reason, NASA created a special coating to protect this equipment. This coating was later used on plastic lenses (a requirement of the FDA) for eyeglasses. Today, virtually any pair of spectacles you can find on the market are equipped with lenses coated by this invention of NASA.
The Apollo landing rover required a specialized control that factored human response into the equation. This means that NASA had to develop a system that was both intuitive and functional on more than just a 2D directional field of motion. With this in mind, the modern joystick was born.
Today, the joystick is used in a variety of different settings including gaming, assistive mobility devices, and various other applications. Force feedback joysticks have expanded on this principle even further, allowing gamers to enjoy the same kind of tactile feedback that NASA astronauts have been using during training for years thanks to the efforts of NASA’s Advanced Displays and Spatial Perception Laboratory.
Using a single stick to control vehicles wasn’t an entirely new concept, but the idea of having one adjustable by a single finger and sensitive to the slightest touch made it an important asset of the highly detailed control mechanism aboard the Apollo lunar lander. It is also used to make very precise, controlled movements when docking a shuttle to another module and/or station.
[Photo source: NASA] It would be hard to make a top five list without giving some credit to NASA’s contributions to the invention of the mouse. This peripheral made it possible for Apple to go to market with the first GUI on a consumer personal computer. The mouse exists to this day as a primary component of desktop computers around the world.
The story starts with Bob Taylor, who worked on NASA’s flight control, display, and simulation technology systems. He was searching for a way to make these computers of the 1960s more interactive with the user. That was when Doug Englebart approached Bob Taylor and proposed a few ideas about how this data could be better manipulated by the user.
Taylor granted NASA funding to Englebart and the search for a pointing device was on. The early mouse was the device that study participants favored the most, and that’s what ended up sticking.
Taylor later went on to initiate the ARPAnet project, an early version of what we know today as the Internet. He also went to Xerox where he continued to expand on the original mouse design. It was at Xerox where Steve Jobs got his first glimpse of the mouse.
Memory foam is one of those inventions that has a multitude of different uses. Not only is it used in some high-end mattresses and pillows, but also in wheelchairs, physical therapy, and other furniture. Back patients may turn to it for pain relief where traditional box spring mattresses can aggravate their condition. In addition, some patients confined to a bed for long periods of time have benefited from a lessened occurrence of decreased blood flow from a hard mattress.
NASA originally developed memory foam as a way to make aircraft cushions more safe. Memory foam is slow to spring back into shape, which can be an advantage in an environment where pilots are jostled rather roughly.
Water filtration was not invented by NASA. NASA did, however, improve on filtration technology in order to provide a safer environment for astronauts free of bacteria and other potentially sickening elements that can piggyback on even the clearest of water.
NASA went to work creating a better filtration technique that would make water safe even in the harshest of conditions. Keeping filtered water clean for extended periods of time can be very difficult. Thankfully, NASA developed a technique using carbon filters and silver ions that accomplish just that.
You can find filters using this NASA technology in almost every home in the US and Canada. One of the most commonly known applications is in the Brita line of products.
Myths and Facts
During my research for this article, it became apparent just how many commonly accepted myths surround the work being done by NASA scientists. Here are some of them.
Tang — Tang was not invented by NASA. While it was made famous by astronauts taking it with them into space during a 1962 mission, various products were tested, including Tang. The company that can be credited for inventing this delicious beverage is General Foods in 1957.
Velcro — Velcro is often assumed as being an invention of NASA scientists. In reality, Velcro was invented by the Swiss in the 1940s. Velcro was used by the Apollo missions due to the convenience of being able to quickly attach and remove equipment to various surfaces during space flight.
Barcodes — Barcodes were not invented by NASA. What NASA did do to improve the barcode was develop a system in which inventory could be better controlled. The first barcode was developed before NASA was even founded. The patent for the original barcode was filed in the late 1940s and approved in 1952.
Teflon — DuPont developed Teflon in the late 1930s. NASA has been associated with the non-stick material since it applied it to heat shields and other surfaces that would suffer the extreme heat of the sun and/or reentry.
Smoke Detectors — NASA did not invent smoke detectors, though it did develop a sensitivity adjustment that allows users to turn it down to avoid false positives. NASA teamed with Honeywell to make the product available to consumers, but it is no longer available to the public.
Cordless Power Tools — The first cordless power tool was first introduced to market by Black & Decker in 1961. NASA later teamed with the tool maker to create what would become a larger line of products. This partnership paid off as it inspired the company to eventually create precision surgical instruments and the cordless vacuum cleaner we all know as the Dustbuster.
NASA has been behind countless inventions over the years. Firefighters use an improved breathing apparatus made possible by NASA, weather satellites are more accurate, and satellite communication is made possible thanks to the ingenuity of a handful of brainy scientists working at various NASA facilities.
Next time you put on your glasses, play your favorite console game, or enjoy a clean glass of filtered water, keep the fine folks at NASA in mind.