Made in Nasa

Published: February 8, 2015 12:16 AM

A huge range of products we take for granted in our daily lives have all originated in the labs of Nasa

NEIL ARMSTRONG’S first words on stepping on to the moon’s surface are now enshrined in history, but the part about it being “one giant leap for mankind” was more prescient than most people think. A huge range of products we take for granted in our daily lives have all originated in the labs of Nasa, the American equivalent of Isro. Some of the most popular products, listed by the space agency, include satellite communications, which allow us to use our mobile phones anywhere in the world to call anywhere in the world. Even before Armstrong set off on his historic flight, Nasa had put up satellites to allow astronauts to communicate with the ground. Using similar satellite technology, around 200 communication satellites orbit the globe each day, which allow us to call our friends in the same city, country or overseas. Perhaps the most valuable invention to come out of Nasa’s labs was the CAT scan. This technology, used by hospitals to detect cancer and other life-threatening diseases, was first used by Nasa to find imperfections in space components. Another of the more useful devices in our homes, offices or public buildings are smoke detectors. They were first designed and used in Skylab, the first US space station. It was to warn astronauts if a fire had started or if dangerous gases were loose. The smoke detectors were designed in collaboration with Honeywell Corporation. Later, Nasa created the first smoke detector with different sensitivity levels to prevent false alarms. House owners will be ever grateful to Nasa each time they use a cordless vacuum cleaner. The device, which we use to suck up bits of dirt or crumbs around the house, is taken from battery-powered technology that astronauts used on the moon to pick up samples of rock and soil. Black & Decker used similar Nasa-related research to produce lightweight, cordless medical instruments, hand-held vacuum cleaners and other tools.

There are also athletic shoes, which have borrowed heavily from the ones that Armstrong wore. The boots designed for the Apollo missions were designed to give astronauts the slow-motion ‘bounce’ we see on TV shots, while also providing ventilation. Athletic shoe companies took this technology and adopted it to construct better shoes that lessen the impact on your feet and legs, and give athletes an extra spring in their steps. Shoe company KangaROOS was the first to apply the principles and technology to patent a three-dimensional polyurethane foam fabric that distributes the force on your feet when you walk or run, with help from Nasa scientists. By coiling the fibres within the fabric, KangaROOS shoes absorb the energy from the foot hitting the ground. Other manufacturers followed, producing athletic shoes that provided far better shock absorption and spring, as well as better cooling. Perhaps the biggest boon for ordinary humans has been Nasa’s perfecting the art of freeze-dried foods, as a weight-saving measure. Nasa scientists were able to patent a process that reduces the weight of food and increases the shelf life without any loss of nutritional value. Another Nasa-inspired product is called the smart box, and we can see it in the packaging of takeaways at most fast food outlets. The smart box was originally designed to keep grilled cheese sandwiches from getting cold and hard after a few minutes.

Nasa consultants, who designed the food and packaging for space flights, came up with a cardboard carry-out box with special holes for airflow and an aluminum wrap to keep sandwiches, fries, burgers, etc, warm for longer periods. Gamers have benefitted hugely from the space programme at Nasa. The joystick, an essential accessory for playing video games, was first used on the Apollo Lunar Rover. Each year since 1976, Nasa has published a list of every commercialised technology and product linked to its research. The Nasa journal Spinoff highlights these products, which have included things like improved pacemakers, state-of-the-art exercise machines and satellite radio. Each product was made possible thanks to a Nasa idea or innovation. Today, the invisible braces that dentists use for children were made from Nasa-inspired research on ceramics, as are the scratch-resistant lenses we use for our eyeglasses. They were invented by Nasa for use on astronaut’s helmets to protect space equipment from scratches from dirt and particles found in space environments. The special plastics coating made its visor 10 times more scratch-resistant than uncoated plastics, and are now widely used for reading glasses or sunglasses. Then there are the thermometers we use, which are based on Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Lab, which invented an infra-red sensor to measure the temperature of stars and planets.

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