As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, we, of course, remember the Moon landing, the planting of the American flag, and Neil Armstrong’s "one small step."
The 1969 lunar mission, however, also gave us a variety of everyday technologies that we may rarely even notice, from the roofs of today's football stadiums to the packaging around our food.
The 1958 Space Act charged NASA with finding the widest practical application of its technologies, and sharing the benefits of the results of its missions as widely as possible.
In other words, the technologies employed in space can and should be used – or spun off – here on Earth.
“When you push the boundaries of what's possible, when you solve completely new challenges, the technologies you create just have these wider applications,” Daniel Coleman, editor of NASA’s annual Spinoff magazine, told us in a recent interview.
Begun in 1976, the annual report has since highlighted more than 2,000 commercialized technologies that began on NASA’s space missions.
Coleman spoke with Tech Briefs about the most important “Spinoff” technologies from Apollo 11.
Tech Briefs: What are some of the most well-known NASA spinoffs?
Daniel Coleman: It can be surprising, when you look into it, just how ubiquitous NASA technologies are in society.
The camera in your cell phone is a NASA spinoff. The digital imaging sensor, known as a CMOS sensor, or complementary metal-oxide sensor, was originally created by a NASA engineer to make a smaller camera for space than the existing CCD technology.
The CMOS sensor has since become the standard in digital imaging cameras. A GoPro uses NASA technology.
Memory foam was actually developed out of a NASA project that was looking at safety in aircraft. Now it's in beds, pillows, and theater seats.
Tech Briefs: This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. What spin-off technologies stand out to you from that mission?
Coleman: Following the Apollo 1 tragedy, NASA was looking to redesign the Apollo spacesuits, to make them fire-resistant. They looked for a material that would be durable, strong, lightweight, flexible, and non-combustible. What they settled on was a fiberglass fabric coated with Teflon. The company that helped NASA develop this new spacesuit went and spun that off as an architectural fabric, and it's all over the place now.
A lot of stadiums around the United States and around the world utilize this white fabric, a tensile fabric that's used in architecture. It's unmistakable once you see it.
Another spinoff that has become ubiquitous is a set of food safety standards known as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) concept. As NASA was looking to send people into space, it needed to pack everything they needed ahead of time to go with them. In particular with food preparation, NASA wanted to ensure that the astronauts were not going to get a stomach bug when out in orbit around the Moon.
They worked with Pillsbury to come up with new standards for testing the safety of food. All of this was vacuum-packed food that they sent with the astronauts. Pillsbury turned around and started using this standard themselves, and it's actually become the industry standard in food safety.
I’d also like to mention the technology of fly-by-wire systems. In early flight, when a pilot pulled back on the joystick, that joystick moved through cables and physical parts; the pilot would actually be physically moving the plane by moving components around.
The idea of having a flight computer containing all of the input from the pilot, sending out signals, and controlling parts through this digital connection actually came about in order to enable the Apollo Guidance Computer, which was used during the Apollo missions.
Dryden Flight Research Center (now Armstrong Flight Research Center) worked with this technology and developed the first fly-by-wire aircraft. For the first time, these pilots were not controlling the rudders and the various mechanical components themselves; a computer was doing it.
Nowadays, that's everywhere. Every flight you take, every commercial aircraft is using fly-by-wire.
Tech Briefs: Are there any spinoff technologies from Apollo that we'd maybe be surprised to learn were from the Apollo mission?
Coleman: People might be surprised to learn that emergency blanket – the thin, highly reflective metallized sheet otherwise known as radiant barrier insulation – actually came out of research into how to insulate spacecraft and astronauts in space.
If you had an astronaut out in the extreme temperatures of space, and you used typical insulation, you'd need a spacesuit that was feet thick, rather than inches or even less than that. NASA needed something that was obviously a lot more flexible and easy to work with. Early NASA research led to this now very common material.
People might be surprised to learn that their hearing aid batteries may be a NASA spinoff. NASA has been using rechargeable silver-zinc batteries during the Apollo missions. It still was kind of a niche-use technology, but NASA continued to research and eventually dropped it.
A company took that technology and a decade or so of their own work and research into it, and came out with a silver-zinc rechargeable hearing aid battery. It's one of the only of its kind that can last all day on a single charge and can also be recharged time and time again, and it solves what's actually a big problem for those who use hearing aids.
Tech Briefs: Do you notice a difference between the spinoff offerings today versus the spinoffs from Apollo?
Coleman: Probably, the biggest difference that I see is that a lot of the spinoffs we write about today have some kind of software or digital component.
There's a lot of use of data, for example. Satellites are now a huge part of the space program, particularly Earth-observing satellites. Back in Apollo, we didn't have nearly as many. But, nowadays, satellites are used for weather, for GPS, and we do have some NASA spinoffs in those areas.
Earth observation satellites also give farmers all over the world benefits. Software from NASA satellites gives them predictions of crop yields, for example. Farmland is worked by self-driving tractors nowadays, thanks in part to NASA software that does some key corrections to GPS data, which makes it accurate down to inches rather than feet.
All that's infrastructure that didn't really exist back then. The technologies, thanks to some of the digital infrastructure and software, can have a global reach in a way that I don't think we really saw during Apollo.
Tech Briefs: We remember Apollo 11 for the obvious moments like, of course, the Moon landing. In this context of what we're talking about, are there any aspects of the mission that you think may be overlooked, or that are important for us to remember as we approach the anniversary of Apollo?.
Coleman: What got us to those big moments we’re going to be celebrating this summer – planting the flag in the Moon and landing there, getting into orbit – were a lot of smaller moments when there were challenges and all sorts of obstacles, that thousands of people who were working at NASA at the time faced. Thanks to their genius and their determination and their sacrifice, they created so many technologies that came out of NASA at that time, many of which became spinoffs.
I would say that as we celebrate the Moon-landing anniversary this summer, people should take a little time to reflect on all those thousands of people, who made those flights possible, who made Apollo possible, and think about how, at the time, it wasn't a given that we were going to make it to the Moon. We got there, because they solved one problem after another. Thanks to those people, among other things, we not only landed on the Moon, but we also have these secondary benefits in the form of spinoffs, that benefit life on Earth even today.