NASA pursues space exploration to expand knowledge of the universe and to enable human space travel. But a fascinating side note to the U.S. space enterprise is how the decades’ worth of research has spun off an incredible range of technologies and products used by business, the health sector and households.
NASA scientists, after all, have faced a host of unusual challenges over the decades to develop innovations that allow the successful exploration of the heavens. For example: Keeping the human body safe, functioning and comfortable in weightlessness and other circumstances specific to space travel. Developing new materials to accommodate the peculiar conditions of space. And coming up with innovative technologies for communication, imaging and computing.
NASA scientists are constantly at work on new discoveries, leading to a surprisingly large number of inventions — an average of more than 1,500 new inventions each year, a recent article in the American Scholar reports. The vast majority of NASA creations and spinoffs over the years haven’t received high-profile attention, but they still have had practical utility.
Consider the inflatable antigravity suits developed in the 1960s to keep astronauts from blacking out during extreme acceleration. The suits apply pressure on the legs to send blood to the brain and eventually became standard in some emergency medical situations for civilians. By the 1990s, studies raised concerns about the suits’ negative effects.
But that’s not the end of the story. Starting in the early 2000s, physicians began using a noninflatable version of the suit to treat women experiencing postpartum hemorrhage, keeping the women alive until they can reach a medical facility. The global need for the suits is great, since about 100,000 women in developing countries die from such bleeding each year. The cheapest form of the suit costs only 40 cents per use. Similarly, a raft design created for Apollo astronauts landing in the ocean after re-entry is credited with saving at least 450 lives at sea.
Among other technologies that stem either directly or indirectly from NASA research: digital imaging used in phone cameras; weather forecasting satellites; integrated-circuit computers; and specialized surface coatings of various uses.
NASA’s most-licensed technology is something called “emulsified zero-valent iron.” The curiously named substance, used to clean up contaminants during early space launches, is now used routinely in large-scale decontamination projects worldwide.
Contrary to common assumption, NASA didn’t invent the instant orange drink Tang, however. “Tang was created by General Foods in 1957,” the article explains, “though it didn’t sell well until it was used on John Glenn’s February 1962 Mercury flight.”
In farm country, one can sometimes spot a most interesting NASA spinoff: self-driving tractors. John Deere developed its prototypes in the early 2000s in part through a partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to work out the complexities of real-time data tracking via the Internet.
A quiet side story of NASA history, then, is its multiple liftoffs into technological innovation — with civilian lives enriched and in many cases saved.