10 Things We All Use That Were Originally Created by NASA
Last week, the International Space Station received a very special delivery: 12 bottles of red Bordeaux wine from France. But no, the astronauts who signed for it aren’t planning to host a tasteful cocktail party in zero-gravity. Unfortunately for them—but very fortunately for us—the wine was sent up by Space Cargo Unlimited, a European startup that hopes to study the effects of space-aging on vino in order to produce new flavors and varieties for those of us back on Earth.
While the potential for “space wine” finally sounds like one of the futuristic innovations we were promised in sci-fi flicks growing up, this is hardly the first time that space travel has been tapped to make giant leaps in mankind’s manufacturing process. We might not have flying cars, but you’d be surprised to learn that NASA originally developed many of the products you use every day.
Read on for ten common items and inventions that prove we’ve been living in the future all along.
1. Memory Foam Mattresses
Anyone who sleeps on a memory foam mattress can thank NASA for their sweet dreams. The shock-absorbing, body-molding material was developed in 1966, when the space agency commissioned aeronautical engineer Charles Yost to help improve aircraft seating for better crash and vibration protection during take-off and landing. As it turns out, Yost’s “slow spring back” polymeric foam was not only safer, but it was also more comfortable. In the 1980s, NASA released memory foam to the public domain. Cue the Tempur-Pedic commercials.
2. Nike Air Sneakers
Yep, you have a closet-full of astronaut-approved shoes! The famous shock-absorbing soles of Nike Airs are the patented invention of former NASA engineer M. Frank Rudy, whose “blow rubber molding” technique had been applied to space helmets during the Apollo missions. Once marketed to elite runners, the hollowed-out midsoles boasting polyurethane pouches of dense gasses are now a style staple.
3. Computer Mice
Before computers sat on desks and laps across the world, they were giant “arithmetic machines” that looked more like a wall of switchboards than personal use devices. As NASA began to utilize them for all aspects of space travel, they wanted to make computers easier for humans to interact with, so it funneled funding into the research of Doug Englebart, an engineer at the Stanford Research Institute who was also trying to broaden the horizons of computer use. In 1968, Englebart publicly presented the computer mouse in a landmark demonstration that would retroactively be known as “The Mother of All Demos,” changing the way computers were used forever.
4. Scratch-Resistant Glasses
In 1972, the Food and Drug Administration issued a regulation that eyeglass lenses be shatter-proof, which quickly led manufacturers to replace glass with plastic. The downside, however, was that plastic was way more susceptible to scratches—not great if you’re trying to see clearly. The solution was accidentally found when NASA began researching plastics to use for astronaut helmets and other aerospace equipment. In 1983, the Foster-Grant Corporation obtained a license from NASA to further develop scratch-resistant technology, which eventually went to mass market.
5. Cell Phone Cameras
All your selfies and Instagram posts? The result of NASA research. In the 1990s a team led by Eric Fossum at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory set out to improve CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) sensors used in digital photography in order to allow for high-def images from miniature cameras that could be used during space missions. That technology is now used in GoPros, cell phone cameras and even X-rays.
The portable, cordless mini vacuum you probably use to clean up cat hair is the result of a partnership between NASA and Black and Decker, in which the company was tapped to help create powerful, self-contained tools that astronauts could easily use on… the moon. No big deal. What was originally a power drill to collect space dust is now picking up regular ol’ dust in homes everywhere.
7. Baby Formula
You might not use the stuff now, but we’re sure you did at one point in your life. In the 1980s, NASA scientists began looking into microalgae as a source of food and nutrition on long space trips. The enriched ingredient was later used to patent Formulaid, a highly beneficial supplement found in many baby formulas. Yum.
8. Safer Highways
This isn’t technically a product, but it’s definitely something you couldn’t live without. Literally. In an effort to reduce the number of hydroplaning accidents on aircraft runways, NASA came up with innovative pavement grooving. The technique improves tire friction, and it’s since been applied to commercial airport runways and on major highways across the country. It’s reduced weather-related accidents on slippery highways by nearly 100 percent.
9. Invisible Braces
Here’s a reason to smile. Invisible braces from well-known companies like Invisalign have made fixing your teeth easier (and more bully-proof) than ever. In a pretty badass turn of events, they are actually derived from NASA technology used to track heat-seeking missiles. The material used is called “transparent polycrystalline alumina,” which could be stronger than steel.
LOL, remember paper maps? They’re a thing of the past thanks to NASA’s hyperaccurate Global Positioning System, or GPS. The radio navigation system uses a constellation of over 30 satellites, whose movements are tracked by a ground control network. In the 1990s, GPS was improved from 15-meter to 5-centimeter accuracy and while it’s crucial for NASA’s space missions, it’s also a necessity for anyone going on a road trip down here on Earth.
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