The benefits of NASA's space exploration efforts are not limited to the cosmos. NASA technologies provide innovative solutions for people around the world. NASA missions have generated thousands of spinoffs — commercialized products we use every day. On the following pages, we highight just some of the many innovations that had their origins in NASA programs.

Eight years after President Kennedy challenged Americans to reach for the Moon, Project Apollo landed the first humans on the lunar surface and returned them safely to Earth. The Apollo program also developed technology to meet other national interests in space, conducted scientific exploration of the Moon, and developed humanity's capability to work in the lunar environment.

Temper Foam – Perhaps the most widely recognized NASA spinoff, memory foam — also known as temper foam — dates back to 1966 when it was developed to absorb shock and offer improved protection and comfort in NASA's aerospace seats. Today, memory foam makes for more comfortable beds, couches, and chairs as well as better shoes, movie theater seats, and even football helmets.

Insulating Material – The thin, shiny, reflective material used to insulate everything from the Hubble Space Telescope to hikers, from the Mars rovers to marathon runners, from computers to campers, from satellites to Sun shields, and from rockets to residences is one of the simplest, yet most versatile NASA spinoffs. The insulating material that coated the base of the Apollo lunar landing vehicles has been employed on virtually all manned and unmanned NASA missions.

Perhaps the most widely recognized NASA spinoff, memory foam was invented to absorb shock and provide improved protection and comfort in NASA aerospace seats.

Freeze-Dried Foods – Freeze-dried food solved the problem of what to feed an astronaut on the long-duration Apollo missions. Freeze-drying foods preserves nutritional value and taste, while also reducing weight and increasing shelf life.

Space blankets were first developed by NASA in 1964. The highly reflective insulators are often included in emergency kits and are used by long-distance runners after finishing a race to avoid a large swing in body temperature. (AFM Inc.)

Cooling Suits – Cool suits, which kept Apollo astronauts comfortable during Moon walks, are today worn by racecar drivers, nuclear reactor technicians, shipyard workers, people with multiple sclerosis, and children with a congenital disorder known as hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, which restricts the body's ability to cool itself.

Green Buildings – The same fabric used in Apollo-era spacesuits has been spun off into a cost-effective, environmentally friendly building material. Used on structures around the world, the Teflon-coated fiberglass strands create a permanent, tent-like roof. Less expensive than conventional roofing materials, the durable white fabric allows natural light to shine through, saving a significant amount of energy.

Exercise Equipment – A cardiovascular conditioner developed for astronauts in space led to the invention of a physical therapy and athletic development machine used by football teams, sports clinics, and medical rehabilitation centers.

Flame-Resistant Textiles – After a fire on the Apollo launch pad that resulted in the deaths of three astronauts, NASA worked with private industry to develop a line of fire-resistant textiles for use in spacesuits and vehicles. These materials are now used in numerous firefighting, military, motor sports, and other applications.

Water Purification – Water purification technology used on the Apollo spacecraft is now employed in several spinoff applications to kill bacteria, viruses, and algae in community water supply systems and cooling towers. Filters mounted on faucets reduce lead in water supplies.

Fly-by-Wire – The Apollo Lunar Landing Training Vehicle used to train the Apollo spacecraft commanders employed an analog fly-by-wire system with no mechanical backup, making it the first genuine fly-by-wire vehicle. Digital Fly-by-Wire (DFBW) demonstrated the ability to fly an aircraft by digital computer alone. The first commercial airliner to fly with DFBW was the Airbus 320 in 1987, followed by Boeing's 777 in 1994. Today, the technology is used on most major airlines, enabling greater fuel efficiency.

A portable, self-contained drill was built by NASA for Apollo astronauts to collect lunar soil samples. Black & Decker refined the original technology to create a cordless vacuum cleaner called the Dustbuster.
A material originally developed for spacesuits can be seen all over the world in stadiums, arenas, airports, pavilions, malls, and museums. (Government of Brazil, CC BY 3.0)
NASCAR racecars use materials from the same thermal protection system tiles used to safeguard NASA astronauts onboard the space shuttle. (NASA)

Cordless Tools – Among the most important tasks performed by Apollo astronauts was collecting lunar rock and soil. Obtaining subsurface soil required development of a special drill capable of extracting core samples from as much as 10 feet below the surface. The drill had to be lightweight and compact with its own power source. Black & Decker designed a battery-powered, magnetmotor system for the drill and used it as a base for battery-powered tools such as the Dustbuster handheld rechargeable vacuum.

Space Pens – Originally developed for NASA astronaut recordkeeping on Apollo missions, Fisher Space Pens became a multimillion-dollar-a-year product. The pens were created to allow writing in orbit where ordinary pens that rely on gravity and atmospheric pressure for ink flows were inadequate. The antigravity pen was introduced to space service on Apollo 7 and has been in regular NASA use since then.

Computed Tomography – Computed tomography (CT or CATScan) incorporates digital image processing technology that traces its origin to NASA research and development performed as a prelude to the Apollo program. Millions of people around the world benefit each year from the medical applications of this technology.

The lifting body aircraft, designed for re-entry from space, were air-launched and then flew powered by their own rocket engines before making an unpowered approach and landing. They helped validate the concept that a space shuttle could make accurate landings without power.

Between the first launch on April 12, 1981, and the final landing on July 21, 2011, the space shuttle fleet — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour — flew 135 missions, helped construct the International Space Station, and inspired generations. The Space Shuttle Program alone has generated more than 100 technology spinoffs including those presented here.

Hundreds of people in need of a heart transplant have been kept alive thanks to a cardiac pump that was designed with the help of NASA expertise in simulating fluid flow through rocket engines. The ventricular assist device keeps blood circulating throughout the body until a donor heart becomes available. (Blausen Medical Communications Inc., CC BY 3.0)

Heart Pump – More than 200 patients received a second chance at life with tiny heart pumps developed from space shuttle fuel pump technology. Just 1 inch in diameter and weighing less than 4 ounces, the miniaturized ventricular assist pumps were developed by NASA and renowned heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey.

Rescue Tool – Rescue squads use a handheld cutter to remove accident victims from wrecked vehicles. Based on a miniature version of the explosive charges used to separate the shuttle from the solid rocket boosters after launch, this device requires no auxiliary power or cumbersome hoses, and it costs 70% less than previous rescue equipment.

NASA helped develop a line of polymer textiles for use in spacesuits and vehicles that is now used in numerous firefighting, military, motor sports, and other applications. (PBI Performance Inc.)

Life-Saving Light – Children suffering from brain tumors may receive relief from lighting technology originally developed for space shuttle plant experiments. These light-emitting diodes may be able to kill cancerous tumors in a process called photodynamic therapy.

Automotive Insulation – NASCAR race-cars shield drivers from extreme engine heat using materials from the same thermal protection system tiles used to safeguard NASA astronauts onboard the space shuttle.

Green Lubricants – Sporting equipment and cars are kinder to the environment with NASA's high-performance, biodegradable lubricants developed for the enormous crawlers that moved the space shuttles to and from the launch pads in Florida.

Firefighting Infrared Camera – Firefighters locate hot spots in wildfires by scanning the flames with a sensitive infrared handheld camera, first used by NASA to observe the blazing plumes from shuttles.

Home Insulation – Homeowners insulate homes with the same lightweight, flexible aerogel NASA used to insulate cryogenics on space shuttles. The insulation is many times thinner and more effective than standard fiberglass insulation yet can be handled and installed with the same traditional methods.

A breast biopsy system using Hubble detector technology offers less invasive procedures. (Hologic, Inc.)
At the 2002 Winter Olympics, U.S. speedskater Chris Witty won gold and set a new world record in the 1,000-meter race. Her skate blades had been polished with a tool inspired by mirror-polishing techniques for the Hubble Space Telescope. (Nathan Blow Photography/ Crawford Family U.S. Olympic Archives, USOC)

Prosthesis Material – Foam insulation used to protect the shuttle's external tank is now available to produce master molds for prosthetics. Replacing heavy, fragile plaster, this new material is light, virtually indestructible, and easy to ship and store.

Video Stabilization Software – When law enforcement officials needed help clarifying crime-scene video, NASA assisted with high-tech image processing technology used to analyze space shuttle launch video. This software removes defects due to image jitter, rotation, and zoom in video sequences, and may also be useful for medical imaging, scientific applications, and home video.

Water Conditioner – A home use water treatment incorporates technology developed to purify water aboard space shuttle orbiters. The system uses NASA silver ion technology as a basis for development of a silver carbon dense enough to remain on top of the water softening resin bed.

Lightning Detector – A low-cost personal lightning detector offers a significant safety advantage to private flyers, boaters, golfers, and others. The detectors originated in space shuttle tests of an optical lightning detection technique that detects invisible intracloud lightning by sensing subtle changes in light presence.

Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has transformed our understanding of the universe with its clear, deep, and stunning imagery including unprecedented views of our solar system and remote galaxies formed 13 billion years ago. Commercial products as varied as semiconductor manufacturing, faster speedskating at the Olympics, and less painful medical procedures were all the result of technologies developed for Hubble.

Semiconductor Manufacturing – The semiconductor industry has benefited from the ultra-precise mirror technology that gives the HST its full optical vision and telescopic power. This technological contribution helped improve optics manufacturing in microlithography — a method for printing tiny circuitry. The system uses molecular films that absorb and scatter incoming light, enabling superior precision and, consequently, higher productivity and better performance. This translates into better-made and potentially less costly computer circuitry and semiconductors.

Ice Skate Sharpening – Speedskater Chris Witty raced her way to a gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Witty and other American short- and long-track speedskaters used a blade-sharpening tool designed with principles used to create optics for the HST.

The Human Grasp Assist device (RoboGlove) was built by NASA and General Motors, and uses Robonaut 2 technology to increase the strength of a human's grasp. (NASA)

Medical Diagnostics – In 2004, the cutting-edge technology that enhances HST's images began helping physicians perform micro-invasive arthroscopic surgery with more accurate diagnoses. A NASA partner refined its micro-endoscope, a tool that enables surgeons to view what is happening inside the body on a screen, eliminating the need for a more invasive diagnostic procedure that could add time, money, and discomfort to a patient's treatment.

CCDs for Biopsies – Charge coupled devices (CCDs) used on the HST to convert light into electronic files have been adapted to improve imaging and optics on Earth. When existing CCD technology could not meet scientific requirements for Hubble's needs, NASA worked with an industry partner to develop a new, more advanced CCD. That partner then applied many of the NASA-driven enhancements to manufacture CCDs for digital mammography biopsy techniques, helping to image breast tissue more clearly and efficiently.

A multinational effort involving NASA and agencies in 15 countries, the International Space Station (ISS) is humanity's home in space and has captured the world's imagination since its first component launched into orbit in 1998. While the ISS provides invaluable information about living in space, everything from the station's construction to biological experiments conducted onboard have led to spinoffs that are improving life on Earth including fitness and medicine, purifying air and water, and enhancing safety.

Humanoid Robot – Robonaut — the first humanoid robot for space exploration — was designed to assist astronauts in tasks on the ISS. Spinoff technologies from Robonaut include a robotic glove (RoboGlove) that can help factory workers with grasping tasks and potentially minimize the risk of repetitive stress injuries, and the X1 robotic exoskeleton to assist people with physical disabilities.

NASA funded the development of an ethylene scrubber for the International Space Station that has subsequently proved capable of purifying air on Earth of all kinds of pathogens and particulates. (Akida Holdings LLC)

CMOS Sensors – The cameras astronauts use to take pictures of the Earth from the ISS feature the same technology as the smartphone you use for your selfies. In the 1990s, NASA built a new kind of sensor using a complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS). It is small, requires very low power, and is highly efficient. CMOS technology enables cellphone cameras, high-definition video, and social media.

Telemedicine – An ISS experiment led to the development of medical ultrasound diagnostic techniques for longdistance use. Technology created to capture and transmit these ultrasound results over the Internet allows patients from professional athletes to mountain climbers to receive medical attention as soon as needed.

A prototype for a robotic planetary exploration vehicle was developed while building the Mars rovers. This work resulted in the creation of tough, highly mobile tactical robots for use by soldiers and first responders.

Resistance Exercise – Developed to help astronauts perform vital exercise during long stays on the ISS, stretching elastomer technology now serves as an effective source of resistance for workout machines on Earth, replicating the feel and results — but not the unwieldy bulk — of free weights.

Aeroponic Gardens – A soil-less plant-growth experiment that enabled plants to grow healthy without the use of pesticides has enabled the development of a commercial aeroponic system. The sterile environment allows plants to grow disease-free and with 98 percent less water and no pesticides.

Air Purifiers – NASA research into sustaining perishable foods for long-duration space missions resulted in the development of an air-cleaning device that eliminates airborne bacteria, mold, fungi, mycotoxins, viruses, volatile organic compounds, and odors.

Water Recycling – A water filtration system providing safe, affordable drinking water throughout the world is the result of NASA's Regenerative Environmental Control and Life Support System, a complex system of devices intended to sustain the astronauts living on the ISS.

Wound-Healing LEDs – Tiny light-emitting diode (LED) chips used to grow plants on the International Space Station are used for wound healing and chronic pain alleviation on Earth. They have been successfully applied in cases of pediatric brain tumors and the prevention of oral mucositis in bone marrow transplant patients.

Multilayer textiles created for the airbags that cushioned the landings of the Mars Pathfinder and rovers have enabled the creation of body armor for public safety officers and the military.

In 1997, NASA's Sojourner robot became the first rover to explore the surface of Mars. The challenges such an enterprise poses have necessitated new technologies that are not only bringing us closer to the Red Planet, but also improving life on Earth. Here are some examples of the remarkable spinoffs to emerge from these efforts.

Panoramic Cameras – Mars rover technology inspired the Gigapan robotic platform for consumer cameras. Using photographic stitching software, the platform automates the creation of digital panoramas containing incredible detail.

Anthrax Detector – Designed originally as a bacterial spore detection system for Mars-bound spacecraft, the technology in the Anthrax Smoke Detector tests airborne particles for weaponized anthrax. The device is being used at airports, office buildings, and post offices worldwide.

Publicly accessible geo-spatial views of cities are now created with the help of 3D datageneration software invented by NASA for imaging and navigation of the surface of Mars. The maps are used for municipal and commercial applications.

Rock and Mineral Analysis – NASA funded research into the next generation of scientific instruments for materials analysis for Mars rover missions. The resulting analyzer provides fast identification of rocks and minerals, useful for chemical, pharmaceutical, and forensics applications.

Voltage Sensors – Concern over static electricity damaging components on the Mars rovers led to the development of tiny sensors — small enough to be worn on clothing — for monitoring voltage changes near sensitive instruments, fuel operations, avionics, or anywhere a jolt of static electricity could prove harmful.

Cell Analysis Tools – Research into space-grown plants — a potential food supply for astronauts on a long mission to Mars — inspired the creation of technology for measuring thousands of cell traits at once, assisting in the evaluation of new drugs by providing critical information on how drugs affect specific cells.

Advanced Sensors – Powerful photode-tectors are necessary for laser communications — a way that Mars colonists might one day phone home. NASA supported the development of a small, energy-efficient sensor capable of detecting single photons that is now commercially available for multiple light sensing applications, such as night vision goggles.

Mapping Technology – Publicly accessible, geospatial views of cities are created with the help of 3D data-generation software invented by NASA for imaging and navigation of the surface of Mars. The 3D city maps are used for municipal and commercial applications.

Mars rover technology inspired the Gigapan robotic platform for consumer cameras that automates the creation of digital panoramas containing incredible detail.

Body Armor – Multilayer textiles that were created for the airbags that cushioned the landings of the Mars Pathfinder and Mars rovers have enabled the creation of body armor for public safety officers and the military that is more comfortable than traditional protective gear, yet comparable to rigid steel plates.

Military Robot – NASA expertise developed while building the Mars rovers has allowed for the creation of tough, highly mobile tactical robots with the ability to search dangerous or inaccessible areas, helping to keep soldiers and first responders out of harm's way.

For information on thousands more NASA-developed commercial technologies, visit Spinoff at here .


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This article first appeared in the October, 2018 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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