In order to send men to the moon or land a research vehicle on Mars, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had to invent and develop many high-tech equipment and materials. By law, the agency is required to disseminate that technology for private use [source: NASA Scientific Spinoff]. Hundreds of NASA innovations have been incorporated into commercial products. It's likely that you've used one or more of these high-tech NASA spinoffs yourself.

NASA makes it easy for companies to use its scientific and technical information. It encourages spinoffs through its Commercial Technology Transfer Network. Ten Commercial Technology offices around the country help get the word out about what technology is available [source: O'Rangers].

Since 1976, more than 1,300 NASA technology spinoffs have reached the market [source: Beith]. NASA boosters estimate that spinoffs have generated at least $7 in taxes and economic growth for every $1 the government has invested in NASA's programs [source: Gaudin]. The precise return is hard to measure. Though it has pushed the boundaries of both knowledge and technology, NASA isn't a big part of the government's budget. The $18.7 billion allotted to NASA in 2012 is less than one percent of total federal spending [source: Office of Management and Budget].

NASA has been at the forefront of high-tech innovation for a number of reasons. Private firms often feel the pressure of stockholders for a quick return on investment, but NASA scientists can have patience, taking the time to develop cutting-edge ideas [source: Gaudin]. Plus, NASA has attracted some of the top scientists and engineers in the country. Who wouldn't be eager to work on challenging problems like designing the Mars rover?

In addition to direct spinoffs, NASA has contributed to a number of broad trends in high-tech fields. The integrated circuit, which is the basis of modern personal computers and other electronics, is closely linked to NASA. Microelectromechanical systems have been a NASA specialty [source: Gaudin]. NASA scientists made discoveries in the area of laser technology. The joy-stick controller that every gamer knows was developed for Apollo Lunar Rover. The global positioning system (GPS) that tells drivers where to turn also relies in part on NASA technology.

Read on to learn about some specific high-tech NASA spinoffs.