Space technologies in daily use, or how NASA impacts everyone

May 10, 2019

You may be surprised by the number of common technologies and products in your daily lives developed or improved by space engineers. Through advancements to space missions and astronaut safety, these space agencies have advanced the quality of everyday life.

Among the leaders of these space-aged institutions is The National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the USA (NASA). The list of NASA technologies that have found the way to everyday civilian use is broader than one might think.

Where space-related commercial discoveries are coming from

In 1964, NASA established the Technology Transfer Program, a technology exchange network. NASA continues to work with the private sector to adapt emerging space technologies to meet everyday needs and demand. Such products, also called NASA spinoff technologies, assisted in developing NASA’s image as the largest global technology research facility.

NASA is among participating agencies at the US government’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program which matches R&D contracts with small commercial enterprises. NASA intellectual property, facilities, research data and expertise in turn become a source for valuable advancements to the global quality of life.

Since 1976, NASA has published the annual official database of NASA Spinoffs.

In 2018, NASA launched an interactive Home and City website, showcasing around 130 commercial technologies that NASA helped to improve affecting your home and city. The website explains in a simple, interactive format why space technologies matter to everyone.

Core NASA spinoffs in transportation, public safety, and environmental fields

While researching safer and more efficient space travel, NASA designed many products enhancing traffic infrastructure here on Earth. Anti-Icing Technology was invented as a response to ice accumulation on aircraft’s wings; thermoelectric systems allow pilots to reduce the ice on the wings. This technology has likewise enhanced the safety of train tracks. New technologies also allowed air conditioning before a flight. Previously, air conditioning was only available while an aircraft was in flight.

Safety grooving decreases sliding or stopping distance and was applied to surfaces such as stairways, sidewalks and parking lots and commercial airports runways across the USA. The technique of cutting grooves by diamond blades was researched by NASA to keep returning space shuttles safe during landing.

In partnership with Intelligent Optical Systems, NASA produced advance warning sensors for chemical erosion in aircraft. Chemically receptive cables are used to indicate chemical release.

NASA had to ensure that humans and spacecraft will survive at extremely high temperatures while planning to send a man to the moon 50 years ago. Space engineers developed a fire-resistant material which forms a defensive layer to block thermal penetration. Applied to high rise buildings, it can provide an insulating layer of up to four hours of fireproofing, allowing more time for evacuation. Firefighting equipment in the US is also adapted from materials developed for space needs. NASA created a lightweight breathing system, using a material for rocket-motor cases which is now the common respirator, protecting firefighters from smoke inhalation.

Clean water is vital for people whether on earth or in space. In order to reduce having to carry large amounts, NASA sought to filter and reuse every drop. Applying the possibilities of ion exchange and chemical absorption, NASA engineers developed a nanofiber filter that converts wastewater into fresh water. Besides the benefit for astronauts in space, this technology can supply potable water for underdeveloped regions and remote villages where groundwater may be considerably polluted.

Until alternate energy sources are available in space, solar power remains critical for astronauts. Accordingly, NASA allocates considerable resources to make solar panels more affordable and efficient. NASA developed a  high-efficiency solar cell, providing up to 50% more power than previous cells. NASA continues endeavor to make cells more durable and more cost effective. Here on earth, these advances bring more efficient power units in vehicles, power plants, solar roof tiles, and various communications systems.

The main NASA inventions for consumer and healthcare needs

In certain cases, NASA generates high tech products that we take for granted as consumers. One of the most popular NASA mass market products is Memory Foam — a higher-density polymeric material that maintains pliability and softness. It was invented in 1966 by NASA-funded researchers in order to protect airplane seats and to keep test pilots safe during flights. Today, temper foam is widely used for beds, couches and chairs, shoes, motorcycle saddles, bulletproof vests, helmets etc.

Another surprising NASA spinoff is baby food enriched with Omega-3. NASA sponsored a bread mold study to create a nutritional supplement for long-lasting space travel. Now, this microalgae-based component is added to baby formula in several dozen countries, helping babies worldwide develop healthy brains, eyes, and hearts. One more NASA contribution to the food industry is freeze drying or removing water from food while leaving its basic structure intact. Freeze drying creates products with a longer shelf life and reduces total food weight. This technology was developed by NASA while preparing for the long-term Apollo missions.

Working with Diatek Corporation, NASA developed thermometers to measure the temperature of astronomical objects, and now allows newborns, children and incapacitated patients to have their temperature read via eardrum. Partnering with private companies, NASA also created new solutions for prosthetic care. Through NASA’s space robotic projects, inventions were customized to create more practical and dynamic prosthetic limbs. Produced in 1964, low-weight heat-reflective space blankets made of heat-reflective plastic sheeting are today often included in first aid kits.

You may believe that space engineers invented it… but they didn’t

Some everyday objects are mistakenly associated with NASA. One of the most well-known false space inventions is Teflon – a synthetic polymer that is in widespread use for cookware, reactive chemical containers, in the healthcare industry etc. NASA uses this polymer in heat shields, cargo holds,  and space suits and half of all Teflon produced is designed for wiring in computer technology and aerospace fields. But Teflon was invented and produced long before its application to space needs. In 1938 it was accidentally discovered by American chemist  Roy J. Plunkett and patented by Kinetic Chemicals in 1941.

Another noted example of false space origins is Velcro – a hook-and-loop fastener applied in various consumer goods, from blood pressure gauges to children’s shoes. In fact, the invention was inspired by nature, not space. In 1948, engineer George de Mestral noticed the burrs on his clothes and adapted the hook and loop concept to commercial application. NASA famously used Velcro during the Apollo missions to hold equipment in place, which led to its popularity in every area of life.

There are a wide range of products that NASA didn’t necessarily invent, but instead improved or extended the scope of use. For instance, NASA didn’t produce the first cordless power tool (it was created in 1961 by Black & Decker) but furthered the technology with spinoff inventions such as portable cordless vacuums. The first automatic electric fire alarm was created in the 19th century, but NASA subsequently developed an advanced smoke detector with increased sensitivity.

To sum up:

Everyday life on Earth is augmented with hundreds of innovative ideas, courtesy of space engineers. The challenges of the space sector accelerates science and technology in vast areas such as infrastructure, public safety, communications, agriculture, environment, consumer goods etc. In order to grow and improve life on Earth, we must continue to develop our abilities.

A technology transfer system is possible with significant institutional resources and a strong partnership with the private sector. NASA demonstrates that such partnerships foster technological growth around the globe.

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