Space Exploration and Earthly Innovation
With more than a trillion dollars spent since NASA’s inception, many people wonder exactly how much bang taxpayers are getting for their buck. Space travel is a hugely expensive endeavor, especially when you consider that only a handful of humans have ever been able to do it.
But even if you never make it to the moon, you already enjoy some benefits of the time and money spent to get astronauts safely there and back. Space exploration has planted the seeds of many inventions that we earthlings enjoy on a daily basis.
If you’ve ever been checked for a fever with an ear thermometer, you were enjoying technology developed at in California. They created a similar process to measure the temperature of stars and planets by reading the infrared radiation they emit. The thermometer works on a smaller scale, measuring the energy emitted by your eardrum. This invention was a particularly welcome change for anyone who has struggled to take the temperature of an uncomfortable, restless child using older methods.
When eyeglass lenses transitioned from glass to plastic, the good news was that glasses became lighter and safer to wear. The bad news was they were very prone to scratches until scratch-resistant lenses came along. This technology was born when a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California was working on a water purification system for astronauts. He found that coating a surface in a very thin plastic, using an electric discharge of vapor, produced an unusually durable result. In 1983, this technology was licensed to an American eyewear manufacturer to refine specifically for eyeglasses. The result is now sold by opticians around the world.
If you’ve ever taken a winter vacation or business trip, your journey may have been aided by NASA’s development of anti-icing formulas for air and rail travel. They have an entire division of the Glenn Research Center in Ohio dedicated to studying the effects of ice on aircraft, and how to reduce those effects most efficiently. By sharing their findings with commercial aircraft manufacturers, NASA provided the groundwork for chemical and electrical systems that keep dangerous ice off of the flights carrying millions of people around the world each day. It also led to the development of a chemical compound that can be sprayed onto railroad tracks and switches before a storm, to keep snow and ice from forming a bond with any of the railway surfaces. This has kept winter storms from delaying or derailing train travel since the 1990s.
We spend about a third of our lives in bed, and manufacturers are always looking for ways to make our sleep more comfortable and restful. One major advancement in this area is mattresses made with memory foam, which easily gives way to pressure and slowly returns to its original shape when the pressure is removed. This gives a unique feeling of supported sinking to the sleeper and has proven to be a popular material for everything from football helmets to walking shoes. But its start came in the 1960s, when a commercial aeronautical engineer was working with NASA to improve aircraft seating with reduced vibration and better survivability in case of a crash. He created the unusual foam and quickly saw its benefits beyond air travel.
Few children leave a visit at the National Air and Space Museum without a taste of the freeze-dried food developed for astronauts enduring the lengthy Apollo missions of the 1960s. NASA researchers found that by dehydrating freshly cooked food at very low temperatures, they could remove all moisture from it. Along with airtight sealing, this slowed the rate at which the food would deteriorate, eliminated the need for refrigeration, and also made it much lighter and smaller cargo. For these same reasons, freeze-dried food is now a popular choice among campers and adventurers, and serves as portable, durable nutrition for use in military, emergency and disaster situations.
Here in Virginia, research at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton led to the development of flexible fire shelters to protect firefighters when the flames become inescapable. The project was inspired by the 2013 deaths of 19 firefighters in an Arizona forest fire, all of whom had covered themselves in lightweight fire shelters that simply couldn’t withstand the relentless heat. With so much of NASA’s research focused on protecting equipment from extreme temperatures, it was clear they could help the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service develop better protection for these circumstances. The result is a flexible shield that expands to completely cover a firefighter’s body while packing down to the approximate size and weight of a half-gallon of milk. With forest fires on the rise around the globe, this innovation will help countless firefighters do their dangerous jobs more safely.
These are just a few of the ways in which space travel and research touch our daily lives. NASA keeps a much more comprehensive list of these “NASA Spinoffs,” new and old. Be sure to check out their YouTube channel for a close look at the innovations that may soon become a part of your routine.
For more information on Apollo Spinoffs, check out these links:
Be sure to watch the marathon broadcast of the PBS/American Experience series on the Apollo 11 moon landing, "Chasing the Moon" on July 20, 2- 8 pm, on WCVW PBS.