Space might be billed as the final frontier, but in fact, much of the technology used to put man on the moon and send spacecraft much further is used every day on Earth.
Thanks to Nasa’s Technology Transfer programme, commercial spin-offs have given us everything from memory-foam mattresses and emergency space blankets, to cochlear implants.
We’ve rounded up some of the most unusual spin-offs including braces and swimsuits and dispel some of the mythical products you thought came from the space agency – Teflon anyone?
Braces may not be the most obvious spin-off technology invented as a result of the space race, but Nasa played a role in developing a type of transparent ceramic called translucent polycrystalline alumina (TPA), which is better known as Ceradyne. The strong, translucent material was originally designed as protection for infrared antennae on heat-seeking missile trackers. Now it's used as part of invisible brace systems to connect each tooth to a thin metal wire, as an aesthetically appealing and effective alternative to braces made of colourful plastic and metal.
Cordless vacuum cleaners
It’s strange to think something as unsexy as a vacuum cleaner came about from the uber-cool lunar landings. But the Dustbuster was born from Nasa’s brief to design lightweight, energy-efficient, self-powering equipment capable of providing greater mobility and speed for astronauts. The technology behind hand-held cordless vacuums originated from portable, battery-operated drills used to extract samples on the moon's surface. Black & Decker developed a computer program to power the drill’s low-power motor and later used it to create the Dustbuster.
The Internet of Things is tipped to change everyday life as we know it, by allowing us to ‘talk’ to connected household appliances remotely. But the dream of warming your oven on the way home from work, began with Nasa. The space agency developed Embedded Web Technology (EWT) so astronauts could remotely operate experiments on the International Space Station. Using EWT, a company named TMIO developed a remote control oven called ‘Connect Io’ with pre-programmable cooking cycles. Now, mainstream tech brands are racing to develop intelligent home appliances that are tipped to be in every home within a decade.
Freeze dried food
We may not eat freeze dried food every day, but it’s handy for camping and would prove invaluable in the event of an emergency, like the zombie apocalypse. Freeze dried emergency rations also come courtesy of Nasa, which when planning long duration Apollo missions, came up with space food, using freeze drying. A company named Action Products commercialised this technique to develop space-age snack foods like freeze-dried ice cream. The foods are cooked, quickly frozen and then slowly heated in a vacuum chamber to remove the ice crystals formed by the freezing process. The final product retains 98 percent of its nutrition and weighs only 20 percent of its original weight.
Speedo’s LZR Racer swimsuit made a splash at the Beijing Olympics where swimmers wearing the innovative costume broke 13 world records, with experts claiming the suit improves efficiency by five per cent. Nasa’s Langley Research Centre – a specialist in studying the forces of friction and drag – helped design the costume, which cuts skin friction drag by 24 per cent.
The seamless swimsuit is not only effective at reducing drag, but repels water and is extremely lightweight. Instead of sewing overlapping pieces of fabric, Speedo fused the edges ultrasonically to cut drag by six per cent. The LZE Racer uses a ‘Hydro Form Compression System’ to grip the body like a corset. Speedo experts say this compression helps swimmers maintain the best form possible, enabling them to swim longer and faster because they use less energy to power through water at their best.
Toothpaste may not be something you associate with the Apollo missions, but craft in the 1960s were cramped with no room for wash facilities as seen on the International Space Station today. So Dr Ira L Shannon, a dental consultant to Johnson Space Centre, developed a foamless toothpaste that could be swallowed after use.
Applied without water, the paste, which was commercialised as NASAdent was shown to be as effective as the conventional alternative and was used by astronauts as well as later, in hospitals. This is because the formulation eliminated the possibility of choking on air bubbles - a problem for some patients as well as astronauts in zero gravity. While sadly the product has not stood the test of time, its innovation has contributed to more advanced toothpastes we use today.
They may not be moonboots, but one company's use of Apollo technology proved to be one giant leap for trainers. Avia Group International - a subsidiary of Reebok - developed the Avia Compression Chamber midsole, which went on sale in 1990 to provide better support and cushioning for the foot over the lifetime of the trainer.
The super durable but lightweight shoe sole made use of a rigid/flexible system inspired by a pressurised spacesuit with an external pressurised shell, horizontal ‘bellows’ for cushioning and vertical columns for stability.
The sole was made of duPont's strong but lightweight Hytrel plastic and a low-density foam to reduce the shoe’s weight by 10 per cent. The trainers, designed for basketball and cross training, could stand 400 miles of running without any signs of wear or tear on the insole.
While Nasa has never made space beer, its technology has this year led to a new way of putting bubbles into the amber nectar.
President of the Mars Society and Founder of Pioneer Energy, Robert Zubrin, previously worked at Nasa developing technology capable of breaking down elements abundant on Mars to turn them into useful resources for humans who may one day live there. To capture carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere it has to be compressed and liquefied – a concept Zubrin has applied to microbreweries, in the form of the ‘Craft Brewery Recovery System’.
In the beer world, large systems allow major brewers to capture CO2 generated during fermentation and use it for carbonation, but the technology hasn’t been available on smaller scales. However, the Craft Brewery Recovery System makes it possible to produce five tons of carbon dioxide a month – enough for a brewery that produces up to 60,000 barrels a year to put the bubbles in beer. The system is designed to save small brewers money, which could ultimately make craft beer cheaper for drinkers – good news all round.
That Teflon was a product of the Space Race is a myth that’s stuck. In fact, the handy material that stops food sticking to frying pans was the brainchild of DuPont scientist Roy J Plunkett in 1938 and has been used in kitchens since the 1950s. Discovered by accident, Plunkett was savvy enough to notice Teflon’s remarkable heat resistant, non-stick and chemically inert qualities. Because of them, Nasa used the material for heat shields and in space suits.
Image credit: Sausages in a frying pan by Rene Ehrhardt (CC 2.0)
The legend goes that Nasa spent a fortune developing a Space Pen to write in zero gravity, while Soviet Cosmonauts were content with using grease pencils. However, the Space Pen used by astronauts today, which has a pressurised ink cartridge so it can write in a weightless environment, under water and in extreme temperatures, was developed by Paul C Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company at a reported cost of around $1 million. While Nasa didn’t help invent the pen, it’s said to have bought 400 for Project Apollo, including the lunar landings. The Soviets also bought the pens in 1969 for use on the Souez flights.