Since its beginnings in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has had to invent everything it needed to make space missions possible, from protective suits for astronauts to the mirrors and software used on the Hubble telescope. But NASA was smart enough to know it couldn't do everything alone -- these are, after all, rocket scientists. It has partnered with businesses and scientists around the country to create some of the most amazing inventions the planet has ever seen, and not just Tang, the powdered orange drink famously used by astronauts on Gemini missions in the 1960s.
Take a look at these five amazing inventions, which were all developed by NASA for use in space but have found some amazing Earth-bound applications.
While working as a NASA scientist specializing in nanomaterials (which are 10,000 times smaller than a human hair), Dr. Dennis Morrison developed nanoceramics, which could be formed into tiny balloons called microcapsules. These little balloons could be filled with cancer-fighting drugs and injected into solid tumors.
Where, you're wondering, does space come into this process? In order to create the microscopic membrane around the liquid drugs, the microcapsules had to be formed in low-Earth orbit. Dr. Morrison's ceramic nanoparticles contained metals that would react when the patient was subjected to a magnetic field, like what's used in an MRI diagnostic machine. The capsules would melt, and the drugs would be released to fight the cancerous tumor.
It turns out that Dr. Morrison's ceramic-magnetic particles were good for more than fighting tumors -- they could also fight frizz. When incorporated into Farouk Systems's hairstyling iron and heated, the nanoparticles released ions that made hair smooth and shiny.
When the Skylab space-based laboratory was set in position in 1973, a solar panel fell off during the launch, which kept another solar panel from deploying properly once in orbit. These panels had to be replaced -- and fast. NASA turned to National Metalizing, a firm it had worked with previously, to create a new panel that would be ready to go into space in 10 days.
National Metalizing had originally developed reflective materials for NASA in the 1950s, so it was able to deliver the necessary thin plastic material coated in vaporized aluminum in time. The material can deflect or conserve radiant energy, depending on which is required -- to keep something cool or to warm it up. This flexible reflective material proved so useful, it was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame in 1996.
A former director of the company took this technology, which has been in the public domain for decades, and started a new company, Advanced Flexible Materials. The same materials used to protect Skylab now protects marathon runners from hypothermia after a race, as well as manatees, which can suffer from hypothermia at 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 degrees Celsius), while they're being tagged by researchers.
Any space nerd who remembers the Hubble Space Telescope launch in 1990 remembers seeing pictures and news videos of the giant mirrors being polished to perfection -- or as close as humans can get, anyway. Minor flaws in the surface could obscure important discoveries.
Hubble and its amazing sheets of optical glass paved the way for the Terrestrial Planet Finder and its deformable mirrors, which will have 100 times the imaging power of its predecessor when NASA launches it in the near future. Deformable mirrors don't need to be absolutely perfect the first time out -- they can adjust their positions to correct for blurring or distortion, which in space can be caused by temperature, lack of gravity or getting bumped during launch.
Deformable mirrors are not so new; they were proposed by astronomers in the 1950s and developed by the United States Air Force in the 1970s. Each system consists of the deformable mirror itself, a sensor that measures any aberrations it finds hundreds of times a second, and a small computer that receives the sensor's readings and tells the mirror how to move to correct for the problem.
No matter what the movies have been telling us for decades, Martians are not likely to be humanoid, sentient beings. They won't have ray guns or space suits. If there is life on Mars, it will be very, very small, and probably not too far up the evolution ladder. Pity.
In order to find such small forms of life, small detectors were necessary. Enter nanotubes, which is a fun word to say. Scientists at the Ames Research Center developed carbon nanotubes, each 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair, that can conduct heat and electricity. Each nanotube is tipped with single strands of nucleic acid (the "NA" in "DNA") from a microorganism. When it comes into contact with a matching strand, the pair form a double helix and send a faint electrical charge through the nanotubes. This charge is how anyone looking at the biosensor, as the tiny apparatus is called, knows life has been detected.
Sadly, no life has yet been found on Mars, but these biosensors are being put to good use on Earth. Tipping the nanotubes with waterborne pathogens like E. Coli and Cryptosporidium means an analyst can get results from the biosensor in the field within two hours -- no lab work required.
When the Mars Pathfinder (1997) and Mars Rover (2004) missions landed on the Red Planet, they landed hard. These were unmanned missions, of course, with some guidance from engineers on Earth -- but not as much as they'd like. The equipment was designed to crash land, gently, with a cage of airbags to cushion the fall from space.
Obviously, not just any airbag would work. NASA required the material to be lightweight and able to withstand extreme temperatures for the interplanetary flight. The material also had to be tough enough to keep the airbags inflated as the whole apparatus bounced along the rocky, sharp surface of Mars.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked with Warwick Mills, the company that had woven the reentry parachutes for the Apollo missions in the 1960s, to create a layered, coated, liquid-crystal polyester fiber that would fit the bill.
Warwick took the technology and ran with it, creating TurtleSkin protective gear that can withstand punctures from needles, knives and even bullets. The flexibility of the tightly woven fabric, which helped keep the Mars landers safe, now also keeps military and police officers safe.
For more information about NASA inventions and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.
Do you know how WISE works? Learn about its new purpose to look for near-Earth objects like asteroids at HowStuffWorks.
- NASA. "History." (March 10, 2011) http://history.nasa.gov/
- NASA. "Scientific and Technical Information Program." (March 2, 2011) http://www.sti.nasa.gov/STI-public-homepage.html
- NASA. "Spinoff - 2009." (March 2, 2011) http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2009/pdf/spinoff2009.pdf
- NASA. "Spinoff - 2010." (March 2, 2011) http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2010/pdf/Spinoff2010.pdf
- NASA. "The Hubble Space Telescope." (March 10, 2011) http://hubble.nasa.gov/
- The Open End. "Tang: The Drink of Choice Among Gemini Astronauts." Jan. 19, 2009. (March 10, 2011) http://theopenend.com/2009/01/19/tang-the-drink-of-choice-among-gemini-astronauts/