Through the decades of its work, many have considered NASA to be synonymous with space exploration, landing a man on the moon and putting an unmanned vehicle on Mars. The sum of its work is hard to fit into a single sentence as NASA’s list of accomplishments is too long to list here.
So, too, is the list of how NASA’s work has influenced and continues to influence our lives every day.
As NASA looked to explore the stars, they needed to create materials and advancements in science to work in some of the most harrowing conditions imaginable. Because of that, they created and developed innovations that led to or influenced many of the popular consumer electronics and products we use today.
NASA employs some pretty brilliant people and, because of them, we have products like the cordless vacuum developed by Black & Decker to collect dust samples on the Moon.
What is NASA?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded as a government agency focused on space exploration in 1958. After the Soviet Union sent Sputnik 1 into space on October 4, 1957, the U.S. Congress urged President Eisenhower to move quickly to beat the Soviet space program.
Established by President Eisenhower the following year, NASA was the result of a combination of a number of existing government entities (including NACA or the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and would become a national civilian space agency.
Among its many accomplishments, NASA launched 1,091 unmanned satellites between 1958 and 1997 and sent up 109 manned missions during the same period. NASA also placed the first man on the moon in 1969 and launched the Hubble telescope, the largest space telescope of its kind as well as reusable spacecraft with the Space Shuttle (Atlantis, Discovery, Challenger).
Today, NASA continues to focus on adding satellites to space to help learn more about Earth or sending space probes to learn more about our solar system and those beyond it. NASA has sent probes to every planet in our solar system and devised telescopes to look far beyond those planets. Thanks to NASA satellites, we have a far better understanding of weather patterns as well as how to build better aircraft to carry travelers all over the world.
To achieve all of these successes, NASA has employed some of the most brilliant minds to develop new technology in the name of science and exploration. Let’s take a look at five scientific and engineering accomplishments and how they have translated to everyday life.
#5: Wireless Headsets
In space, risks need to be minimized and that includes having wires hanging around that could potentially get in the way of astronaut activity. Enter the wireless headset, an invention that is synonymous with our world today. Before AirPods, however, in the early 1960s, airplane pilots were using headsets that were very bulky and utilized handheld microphones to communicate with air traffic control. Enter Courtney Graham and Keith Larkin, two United Airline pilots who began development on a wireless headset.
In 1961, Wally Schirra, a NASA astronaut, began conversations with both pilots to see if they could help develop a wireless headset that would work in space. What’s most shocking about this story is that it took NASA and both Graham and Larkin just eleven days to create one of the first prototypes of what would become the modern-day wireless headset.
Eventually, Wally would use this wireless headset on his Sigma 7 missions, and famously, Neil Armstrong would use a wireless headset when he became the first person to step on the moon. Today, wireless headsets are plentiful with hundreds, if not thousands, of options available to the public. Because of the work of two pilots and NASA’s top-notch teams, this technology allows us to listen to music or communicate with coworkers and family all without any cords in sight.
#4: Computer Mouse
Using a computer mouse is something we undoubtedly take for granted every day. It’s likely been part of our lives since many of our first experiences with computers, but that wasn’t always the case. In the early 1960s, a small team at NASA began working on a way to make computers more interactive. Enter Bob Taylor and Doug Englebart, two NASA employees who were unhappy with the way computers currently worked and wanted to move beyond using computers as “arithmetic machines.”
Among the various technologies that were explored, the computer mouse stood out and won the day as the device NASA would integrate to help its team manage data on a computer screen. Nicknamed by Doug and Bob for its rodent-like shape, the team would release its mouse in 1964. Bill English, hired by Doug Engelbart as part of the mouse research team, would later release the first ball mouse in 1972.
Computer mice come in a variety of shapes and sizes focusing on ergonomics, and reliability, and are available in both wireless and corded variants. Everything from gaming mice to mice that assist with graphic development is available to consumers at relatively inexpensive prices.
#3: Camera Phones
Like the mouse and the wireless headset, camera phones are a part of our everyday life, and for many people, their phone is their only camera.
The history of this incredible technology dates back all the way to 1961 when Eugene Lally of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was looking at a technology to help turn photons into electrons which, when converted into a picture, becomes a digital photograph. By using this technology and providing astronauts with cameras, it would be an invaluable tool for collecting data and conducting research in space. Fun fact, Lally is also credited with the word “pixel” as part of his research.
Fast forward to the 1980s when CCD technology (charge-coupled device) was being developed, which would later become an integral part of digital cameras. However, another JPL engineer by the name of Eric Fossum looked toward CMOS technology as the future camera standard, thanks to pixels being less sensitive to light than CCD. Together both of these technologies would give birth to the digital camera industry as Kodak, AT&T, and other companies licensed the technology for use in consumer products.
This NASA-developed technology continued to evolve and, by 1999, Kyocera was the first phone manufacturer to put a camera into one of its products. The VP-210 became the first camera phone on the market and offered a 110,000-pixel camera (compared to millions of pixels in today’s smartphones). The rest, as they say, is history, as camera phones are now synonymous with smartphones all over the world.
#2: Dustbusters (Cordless Vacuum)
The cordless vacuum, aka the dustbuster, is one of those surprising devices that has its origins in space travel. The result of a NASA partnership with Black & Decker, the dustbuster has the Apollo moon landings to thank for its origins.
As NASA began preparing to send its astronauts into the heavens, one of their more critical tasks was to collect as much lunar rock and soil samples as they could carry back on their spacecraft for the return trip to earth.
Collecting samples on the surface of the moon was an easy solution as astronauts could scoop with their hands. However, getting moon dirt samples from under the surface required a different solution, which led NASA to approach Black & Decker. NASA asked the consumer company to create a drill that could dig beneath the surface of the moon, all while being light enough to not add a huge amount of extra weight for the round trip journey to the moon and back.
Black & Decker was able to refine one of their existing product lineups enough to be able to provide the right amount of battery life and portability we see in dustbusters today. The resulting device was the foundation of cordless tools that would lead to the design of a miniature vacuum cleaner and the dustbuster was born in 1979. Today, dustbusters are now in millions and millions of homes and offices cleaning up spills, accidents, and leaks every minute of every day.
#1: Memory Foam
It’s completely understandable if memory foam seems like a surprise entry on a list of NASA inventions, but its history is one of critical importance. Also known as temper foam, work began on this now widely used technology in the early 1960s by an aeronautical engineer, Charles Yost.
Yost was working on technology and material that would help Apollo astronauts land safely and therefore be easier to recover after landing back from a mission in space. A few years later, Yost began a new role in helping NASA’s Ames Research center look at designing airplane seating that would reduce the amount of energy absorbed by the body in the event of a crash.
Yost’s solution to this problem was a new type of “slow springback foam” that would absorb a lot of pressure and still return to its original shape a short time after any impact. After developing this tech, Yost would leave NASA to start his own company and remarket “slow springback foam” as “temper foam.”
Today, memory form, as it is more commonly known, is available everywhere from airplane seats to the mattresses millions of people sleep on all over the world. NASCAR even uses memory foam to help make its cars safer for drivers in the event of a crash, which brings memory foam full circle back to its original mission of saving lives.
It’s incredible to think of how these everyday inventions were the result of hundreds if not thousands of hours of work by some of the brightest minds on the planet.
These five everyday inventions just scratch the surface of the innovations NASA has worked on that continue to be pervasive in everyday life. Artificial limbs, ear thermometers, foil blankets, athletic shoes, and CAT scans can all trace their origins in some way back to the research of scientists and engineers at NASA.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com.