Five NASA inventions making life on Earth better

Technology once intended for astronauts has found its way down to Earth. Here are five NASA inventions making life on Earth better

The law of unintended consequences doesn’t always have to be bad. Plenty of NASA’s inventions weren’t intended for use on Earth, but plenty of its tech has found a home in our own atmosphere.

NASA even has an annual publication, Spinoff, which documents all the inventions heading out of space and into homes and businesses. As the official NASA Spinoff site states, there have been almost 1,800 of these since 2012.

Here are five of the most memorable, and five that – despite popular belief – are not NASA’s handiwork.

Five NASA inventions

Freeze-dried food

Originally a technique used during World War II for blood serum and coffee (not together, mercifully), freeze-drying really grabbed the public attention when it was transferred to foods, such as the astronaut ice cream pictured above.

Although it’s hard to imagine wanting to eat it on Earth (I’ve tried it and it has all the taste, but none of the texture, of real ice cream), it was a godsend for astronauts – 20% of the food’s original weight, with nearly all of its nutritional value.

Memory foam
There are few things nicer than lying on a memory foam mattress – even a huge pile of money can’t compare (especially if you’ve won it on slot machines).

Memory foam is amazing: it moulds to the body and softens under heat, making a bed you want to stay in forever. Not that this was its original purpose. For NASA, “Temper Foam” (its original name) was designed to make safer aircraft cushions.

Space blankets
NASA is hardly trying to hide its fingerprints with the name “space blanket”, although you may also know it by “Mylar blanket” or “emergency blanket”. It’s a layer of thin heat-reflective plastic sheeting, designed to reduce heat loss. Like freeze-dried food, it was designed to take up as little weight as possible.

It was developed in 1964 for the US space programme to offer protection from temperatures spanning -260˚C to over 480˚C, while also being resistant to ultraviolet radiation.

Scratch-resistant lenses
In 1972, the US Food and Drug Administration banned the use of glass in lenses, which made sense: if you were wearing glasses and they shattered, it was obvious where the fragments would end up.

But the problem was that they were replaced with plastic, which is extremely easy to scratch. Fortunately, technology used by NASA scientists on space helmet visors and equipment came down to Earth in 1983, courtesy of sunglasses manufacturer Foster Grant. The tech is now in almost all eyewear, so you have NASA to thank for your crystal-clear vision.

Drastically improved artificial limbs
Not only are artificial limbs now mechanically better, thanks to various NASA innovations in shock absorption and robotics, they also have the option of looking more flesh-like too – with a little help from the “Temper Foam” technology mentioned above.

Five inventions NASA didn’t come up with

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have NASA to thank for these five inventions. So stop singing its praises.

Teflon
Ask most people to name an invention NASA brought us, and Teflon will be on the list. Not true: Kinetic Chemicals patented polytetrafluoroethylene (after several spell-checks, I imagine) in 1941 and registered Teflon as a trademark in 1945. Although it's been used a lot by NASA for things such as space suits, cargo hold liners and heat shields, it was on frying pans as early as the 1950s.

So NASA actually borrowed the tech from Earth, rather than the other way round.

Tang
During the early NASA missions, water from the life-support system didn’t taste nice. To disguise the flavour, astronauts used Tang: a powdered fruit flavouring. It didn’t help too much – in fact, “Tang sucks”, according to Buzz Aldrin.

Most people hadn’t heard of Tang before the 1962 Mercury flight, but that wasn’t because it was invented for the trip: it’s just because it wasn’t popular. It was invented by chemist William A Mitchell in 1957, and sold by General Foods from 1957. As soon as it became clear that astronauts drank it, sales picked up a bit. Until people actually tried some, presumably.

Don’t feel too bad for Mitchell, though: he was also involved in the creation of Pop Rocks, quick setting jelly, Cool Whip and powdered egg whites.

Space Pen
You may have heard the classic urban legend that while NASA spent millions developing a pen that worked in space, their rivals in the Soviet Union used pencils. They actually both used pencils, but there is some truth in this: NASA did work on a Space Pen before the costs spiralled out of control and the project was abandoned.

The Space Pen was eventually developed and was indeed used by NASA (and, eventually, Soviet cosmonauts), but it wasn’t researched and built by them. The first – the AG7 anti-gravity pen – was manufactured by Paul C Fisher in 1965.

Velcro
Yes, NASA used Velcro during the Apollo missions to hold equipment in place in zero gravity, but no, they didn’t invent it. That honour goes to Swiss engineer George de Mestral, who patented it in 1955.

The name, by the way, is an amalgamation of two French words: velours and crochet – so next time you’re talking about Velcro, confuse everyone by calling it Velvet Hook.

Super soaker
This one seems ludicrous at first. Of course NASA didn’t make the Super Soaker: they weren’t expecting to meet aliens vulnerable to water, like the ones in Signs.

So no, NASA didn’t invent the Super Soaker, but there is a link. The next-generation water pistol was invented by former NASA engineer, Lonnie Johnson, who made the switch from the Galileo mission to toy design in the 1990s. Nowadays, Johnson is back in serious science improving solar panels.


Five NASA inventions making life on Earth better  Five NASA inventions making life on Earth better Reviewed by Jeff on October 29, 2017 Rating: 5

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