You may already be aware of the many amazing products that were invented as a result of NASA research (and no, Tang isn't one of them). After all, NASA doesn't just exist to explore space -- since its creation in 1958, the organization's mission has also been to find ways of improving our lives here on Earth. NASA works with a number of companies and research teams across the country to develop concepts that advance technology in a variety of fields, from healthcare to entertainment. Since 1976, NASA has even published a journal called "Spinoff," which details the various commercial products and technologies that started out as NASA ideas.
The fact that some of this technology led to great, everyday products makes perfect sense -- you can probably see a correlation between NASA applications and things like improved telecommunications, memory foam mattresses and cordless power tools. However, sometimes NASA technology turns up in the strangest of places, or is implemented in unusual ways that probably never crossed the minds of the researchers who first came up with the concept.
In this top five, we'll look at some of the stranger items developed from NASA technology.
If you've fed a baby formula in the last 10 years, it probably included microalgae -- or rather, an algae-based nutritional supplement. You may even be eating it yourself. Back in the 1980s, NASA began a program called the Closed Environment Life Support System. This project included researching the use of microalgae as a food supply during long-term space missions. After the NASA project ended, some of the scientists involved founded a company called Martek Biosciences to continue the research.
The microalgae researched by Martek, specifically a red variety called Crypthecodinium cohnii, is high in an omega-3 fatty acid called DHA (docosahexanoic acid). DHA is found in the brain, eyes and heart, and is essential for the development of these organs in babies as well as their function in adults. In 2001, Martek began manufacturing a nutritional supplement called Formulaid, which also included AHA (arachidonic acid), an essential omega-6 fatty acid derived from a fungus. Today, this supplement is included in nearly all baby formulas marketed in the United States, as well as those sold in more than 75 countries around the world [source: Space Technology Hall of Fame]. Algae-based DHA made by Martek has also been licensed for use in numerous other foods, including milk, yogurt, pasta sauce and bread.
In 2009, NASA and the Space Foundation inducted microalgae nutritional supplements into the Space Hall of Fame.
Gertrude Stein wrote in 1913 that "a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." However, a rose in space is apparently not the same as a rose on Earth. In 1998, researchers at the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics, a NASA Commercial Space Center, developed a special growing chamber called Astroculture. The Astroculture provides plants with the right levels of nutrition, light, humidity and heat to survive during space missions. A fragrance industry company, International Flowers & Fragrances (IFF), thought that the Astroculture was the perfect way to find out how the scent of a rose changed in space. Although researchers already knew that microgravity caused biological changes in plants, nobody had researched how it impacted the production of volatile oils, which give flowers their scent.
IFF chose a miniature rose variety called Overnight Scentsation for the experiment, using a seven-inch plant that would easily fit in the small 17 by 9 by 21 inch (43.2 by 22.9 by 53 centimeter) Astroculture chamber. On Oct. 28, 1998, the rose was launched aboard space shuttle Discovery flight STS-95. During the mission, the two buds on the plant bloomed, and astronauts sampled the rose's volatile oils several times by touching a special wand to the blossoms.
After IFF analyzed the samples, they discovered that the rose produced less volatile oils in space. According to former IFF researcher Braja Mookherjee, the scent was also a more "floral rose aroma" than usual [source: NASA]. From this scent, IFF created a commercial perfume note called space rose, which has been used in Shisedo Cosmetics' perfume ZEN.
What does space flight have to do with swimming? Both swimmers and space shuttles experience a phenomenon called viscous drag, the force that slows down an object when it encounters friction while moving through a fluid such as air or water. In competitive swimming, winners are determined by hundredths of a second, so reducing drag can mean the difference between a win and a loss.
NASA's Langley Research Center uses wind tunnels to study fluid dynamics, the flow of fluids in motion. Studying these forces helps NASA come up with more aerodynamic designs for future vehicles. SpeedoUSA, known for its swimwear, decided to enlist the help of researchers at Langley to design a more efficient swimsuit following the 2004 Olympics. Using a wind tunnel, they tested the effects of surface drag on more than 100 different materials and coatings, as well as different types of seams.
As a result of the study, Speedo developed the LZR Racer. Made of a water-resistant, lightweight fabric, the swimsuit sported ultrasonically-welded seams (which reduce the drag caused by traditionally-sewn seams by 6 percent). It reduced drag from exposed skin by covering more of the body, and compressed the swimmer's core to ensure good form and help expend less energy while swimming.
Swimmers wearing the LZR Racer have been very successful -- Michael Phelps wore one when he won his eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. This NASA-inspired swimsuit has given competitive swimmers such an edge that, FINA, the governing body for competitive swimmers, put restrictions on its use in 2009.
Numerous products are designed to both prevent acne and treat it, but many of these require you to repeatedly apply a medication that can have unwanted side effects. Personal experience inspired biological researcher Robert Conrad to develop a new way to fight pimples -- by zapping them. The Zeno is a hand-held device that uses heat to shock and kill P. acnes, the bacteria that cause acne.
Conrad built a prototype in his garage but wanted to market his device for consumer use. The problem was that his homegrown version was too expensive and bulky. It needed a smaller, more efficient heating element. Enter NASA's Space Alliance Technology Program, or SATOP. SATOP was created to provide NASA engineering support to small businesses that are tackling product design or engineering problems. Conrad's company, Tyrell, worked with SATOP through the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. SATOP put Conrad in contact with Allen J. Saad, a design engineer at Boeing Company, a long-time NASA contractor.
Saad's expertise led to a massive drop in the cost of the heating element -- from $80 to just 10 cents. The Zeno works by delivering just the right amount of heat to the bacteria at the base of the pimple to kill it without damaging the surrounding skin. In 2006, it was named the SATOP Texas Success Story of the Year, and now there are numerous spinoff devices to prevent and treat acne as well as wrinkles. Conrad has stated that without help from SATOP, "the product would likely still be in my garage" [source: Spinoff].
Astronauts don't worry much about styling their hair while in space -- they wash their locks using special, rinseless shampoos, but that's about the extent of it. However, haircare is big business on Earth, and companies are always looking for ways to improve their products. One decided to look to NASA technology for help. In 2001, haircare company founder Farouk Shami met NASA scientist Dr. Dennis Morrison at a nanotechnology conference. Dr. Morrison had spent decades researching nanoceramic materials -- tiny particles of ceramic that are 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. His work led to the creation of drug-filled microcapsules that could be injected into cancerous tumors.
Shami was interested in using nanoceramic materials on the surfaces of hairstyling tools such as flat irons. Based on what he learned from Morrison, he created a new ceramic and metal composite that released negative ions when heated. Shami's company, Farouk Systems, Inc., claims that the end result is smoother, shinier and more manageable hair. Shami has also created products incorporating nanosilver, originally researched by NASA as a way to keep surfaces clean in space. Because silver has antimicrobial properties, applying it in microscopic form to the surfaces of hairstyling tools makes them self-disinfecting.
After retiring from NASA in 2006, Dr. Morrison went to work for Farouk Systems. His latest project incorporates near-infrared light from LEDs (which he researched at NASA for its skin-healing properties) into products that claim to both speed hair-drying time and stimulate hair growth.
NASA's HiDyRS-X camera was built for rocket science tests. Learn more about the rocket camera in this HowStuffWorks Now article.
- Barnstorff, Kathy. "Olympic Swimmers Shattering Records in NASA-Tested Suit." NASA. August 13, 2008. (March 11, 2011)http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/2008-0813-swimsuit.html
- Canwright, Shelley. "Space Scents." NASA Education. April 10, 2009. (March 10, 2011)http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/9-12/features/spacescents_feature.html
- Farouk Systems Group. "What is CHI Technology?" Farouk. 2010. (March 15, 2011)http://www.chiretail.com/technology/
- Goddard Flight Center. "NASA Optimus Prime Spinoff Award." NASA. September 28, 2010. (March 11, 2011)http://ipp.gsfc.nasa.gov/optimus/index.php
- Holub, Bruce. "FAQ." DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute. 2010. (March 11, 2011)http://www.dhaomega3.org/Frequently-Asked-Questions
- Martek Technology Corporation. "Life's DHA." 2010. (March 10, 2011)http://www.martek.com/algae-dha-products-and-services.aspx
- NASA. "Hand-held Instrument Fights Acne, Tops Over-the-Counter Market." Spinoff. 2007.http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20080003907_2008001500.pdf
- NASA. "Nanomaterials Transform Hairstyling Tools." Spinoff. 2010. (March 15, 2011)http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2010/cg_5.html
- NASA. "Space Age Swimsuit Reduces Drag, Breaks Records." Spinoff. 2008. (March 10, 2011)http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20090002494_2009001797.pdf
- NASA. "Space Food." Spinoff. 1994. (March 10, 2001)http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20020080087_2002131882.pdf
- NASA. "Space Research Fortifies Nutrition Worldwide." Spinoff. 2008. (March 10, 2011)http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20090002510_2009001822.pdf
- NASA. "Space Rose Pleases the Senses." Spinoff. 2002. (March 11, 2011)http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/spinoff2002/ch_1.html
- Mainstreet. "NASA Inventions Headed to Your Home." Newsweek. January 20, 2011. (March 15, 2011)http://www.newsweek.com/2011/01/20/nasa-inventions-headed-to-your-home/hairstyling-tools-with-nanotechnology.html
- Space Foundation. "Microalgae Nutritional Supplements." Space Technology Hall of Fame. 2009. (March 10, 2011)http://www.spacetechhalloffame.org/inductees_2009_Micro_Algae_Nutritional_Supplements.html
- Tschorn, Adam. "FINA and the Speedo LZR Racer." LA Times. July 27, 2009. (March 10, 2011)http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/alltherage/2009/07/fina-michael-phelps-speedo-lzr-razer.html
- Zeno. "Hot Spot: The Science." Zeno Corporation. 2011. (March 12, 2011)http://www.myzeno.com/hotspot/the-science-behind-hotspot/