NASA Spin-Offs: From Space Technology to Earth Invention

NASA

The harsh environment of outer space isn’t exactly the most livable of environments. There’s no oxygen, water, inherent ways to raise or grow food. That’s why scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have over the years invested much effort into making the life in space as hospitable as possible for its human and non-human explorers.

Coincidentally, many of these innovations would often be repurposed or found surprising use right here on earth. Among the many examples include a fibrous material that’s five times stronger than steel that was used in parachutes so that Viking rovers can soft-land on the surface of Mars. Now the same material can be found in Good Year tires as a way to extend the tread life of tires.  

In fact, many every day consumer products from baby food to things like solar panels, swimsuits, scratch-resistant lenses, cochlear implants, smoke detectors and artificial limbs were born out of efforts to make space travel easier. So it’s safe to say that a lot of the technology developed for space exploration has ended up benefiting life on planet earth in countless ways. Here are a few of the most popular NASA spin-offs that have made an impact right here on earth.      

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The DustBuster

NASA

Handheld vacuum cleaners have become somewhat of a handy staple in many households these days. Rather than fumbling around with full-sized vacuum cleaners, these portable suction beasts allow us to get into those cramped hard-to-reach spots such as under car seats to clean them out or to give the couch a quick dust up with minimal hassle. But once upon a time they were developed for a much more out-of-this-world task.

The original mini vac, the Black & Decker DustBuster, was in many ways born out of a collaboration between NASA for the Apollo moon landings starting in 1963. During each of their space missions, the astronauts sought to collect lunar rock and soil samples that can be brought back to earth for analysis. But more specifically, scientists needed a tool that can extract soil samples that lied beneath the moon’s surface.

So to be able to dig as deep as 10 feet down into the lunar surface, the Black & Decker Manufacturing Company developed a drill that was powerful enough to dig deep, yet portable and lightweight enough to be brought along the space shuttle. Another requirement was that it would need to be equipped with its own long-lasting power source so that astronauts can survey areas way beyond where the space shuttle was parked.

It was this breakthrough technology that allowed for compact, yet powerful motors that would later become the foundation for the company’s wide range of cordless tools and equipment used across various industries such as automotive and medical fields. And for the average consumer, Black & Decker packaged the battery-operated miniature motor technology into a 2-pound vacuum cleaner that came to be known as the DustBuster.        

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Space Food

NASA

Many of us tend to take for granted the bountiful varieties of nourishment that can be served up right here on god’s green earth. Take a trip several thousands of miles into the atmosphere, though, and options start to become really scarce. And it’s not just that there’s really no edible food in outer space, but astronauts are also limited by the stringent weight restrictions of what can be brought onboard due to the cost of fuel consumption.

The earliest means of sustenance while in space came in the form of bite-sized cubes, freeze dried powders, and semi-liquids such as chocolate sauce stuffed in aluminum tubes. These early astronauts, such as a John Glenn, the first man to dine in outer space, found the selection to be not only severely limited but also unappetizing. For the Gemini missions, attempts at improvements were later tried by fashioning bite-sized cubes coated with gelatin to reduce crumbling and encasing freeze-dried foods in a special plastic container to make rehydrating easier.

Though not quite like a home-cooked meal, astronauts found these newer versions much more pleasing. Soon enough, menu selections expanded to delicacies such as shrimp cocktail, chicken and vegetables, butterscotch pudding and apple sauce. Apollo astronauts in particular had the privilege of rehydrating their foods with hot water, which brought out more of the flavor and made the food taste better overall.

Though efforts to make space cuisine as appetizing as a home-cooked meal proved to be quite challenging, they eventually yielded as much as 72 different food items served on the Skylab’s space station, which was in operation from 1973 to 1979. They’ve even led to the creation of novel consumer food items such as freeze dried ice cream and the use of Tang, a powdered fruit flavored drink mix, aboard space missions led to a sudden boost in popularity. 

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Temper Foam

NASA

One of the most popular innovations customized for adapting to an outer space environment to ever come down to earth is temper foam, better known as memory foam. It’s most often used as bedding material. It’s found in pillows, couches, helmets -- even shoes. It’s trademark snapshot of a material that showcases the imprint of a hand has even now become an iconic symbol of its remarkable space age technology – a technology that’s both elastic and firm, yet soft enough to mold itself to any body part has been lifted.     

And yes, you can thank the researchers at NASA for coming up with such out of this world comfort. Back in the 1960’s the agency was seeking out ways to better cushion NASA’s airplane seats as pilots undergo the exertion pressure of G-force. Their go-to man at the time was an aeronautical engineer named Charles Yost. Fortunately, the open-cell, polymeric "memory" foam material he developed was exactly what the agency had in mind. It allowed for a person’s body weight to be distributed evenly so that comfort can be maintained throughout long distance flights.      

Although the foam material was released to be commercialized in the early 80’s, mass manufacturing of the material proved to be challenging. Fagerdala World Foams was one of the few companies willing to scale up the process and in 1991 released product, the "Tempur-Pedic Swedish Mattress. The secret to the foam’s contouring capabilities lie in the fact that it was heat sensitive, meaning the material would soften in response to heat from the body while the rest of the mattress stayed firm. This way you got that signature even weight distribution to ensure that you got a comfortable night’s rest.

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Water Filters

NASA

Water covers the vast majority of the earth’s surface, but more importantly drinkable water is widely abundant. Not so in outer space. So how do space agencies ensure that astronauts have sufficient access to clean water? NASA began working on this dilemma in the 1970’s by developing special water filters to purify the water supply brought along on shuttle missions. 

The agency partnered with Umpqua Research Company in Oregon, to create filter cartridges that used iodine rather than chlorine to remove impurities and kill bacteria present in the water. The Microbial Check Valve (MCV) cartridge was so successful it has been used on every shuttle flight. For the International Space Station, the Umpqua Research Company developed an improved system called the Regenerable Biocide Delivery Unit that did away with the cartridges and can be regenerated more than 100 times before needing to be replaced. 

More recently some of this technology has been used right here on Earth at municipal water plants in developing countries. Medical facilities have also latched onto the innovative techniques. For example, MRLB International Incorporated in River Falls, Wisconsin, has designed a dental waterline purification cartridge called DentaPure that’s based upon the water purification technology developed for NASA. It’s used to clean and decontaminate water as a link between filter and the dental instrument.