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.
Top NASA Technology Spinoffs
Today, people can profit from NASA technology as soon as they're born. When they tackled the problem of feeding astronauts on long flights, NASA researchers looked at various food crops that could be grown in space. They discovered a strain of algae that produces the nutrients contained in human breast milk. Private companies have adapted the technology to create improved baby formulas [source: Gaudin].
High-tech materials is one area where many NASA inventions have been used commercially. TYCOR is a fiber-reinforced composite developed at NASA that has been incorporated into products ranging from boats and bridges to wind turbine blades [source: NASA Scientific Composite]. Memory-metal alloys are materials that resume their original shape after being deformed. They allow a pilot to fine-tune helicopter blades, give golfers better control of their shots, and go into eyeglass frames that spring back after being bent [source: Marshall]..
NASA improvements in imaging have had widespread applications. In the 1970s, NASA developed the charge-coupled device, a chip that turns light into electric impulses. The devices are now widely used in home and commercial video recording [source: Johnston]. NASA also pioneered high-resolution digital imaging software in order to make telescope images clearer. That has led to improved X-rays and clearer magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) [source: O'Rangers]. And NASA did early work on active pixel sensors, the "camera on a chip" that forms the basis of cell-phone cameras [source: Johnston].
- Light-emitting diodes, developed for NASA plant growth experiments, can be used for cancer treatment and to promote faster wound healing.
- Infrared technology, which NASA used to detect the birth of stars, has resulted in a thermometer lets doctor take body temperature in the ear canal.
- Technology developed for the Mars Viking lander evolved into a programmable, implanted insulin pump that replaces insulin shots for persons with diabetes.
- NASA technology has improved breast cancer detection. Better mammography systems reduce the need for biopsies.
- A space shuttle fuel pump led to a miniature heart assist device that could be implanted in patients awaiting a heart transplant.
These just are a few areas of important NASA spinoffs. In the next section we'll look at an even wider range of high-tech applications.
More High-tech Applications of NASA Research
You've probably seen ads for mattresses and pillows that use a material developed by NASA. In 1966, researchers were looking for an improved cushioning for astronauts' seats. They came up with an open-cell polyurethane foam that conforms well to a person's body and holds that shape. It actually softens in reaction to body heat. In addition to mattresses, this "memory" foam has found uses in football helmets, race cars and commercial airline seats. In hospitals, it helps prevent bed sores [source: NASA Scientific Forty-year-old].
If you wear sunglasses, you may be benefitting from NASA technology. In the 1980s, the agency developed lenses to protect astronauts' eyes from harmful rays. The idea was based on the eyes of birds of prey. The lenses filter the damaging ultraviolet rays while letting through most of the rest of the light. So they protect eyes and let you see better at the same time. They are now available in commercial sunglasses, marketed as Eagle Eyes [source NASA Scientific Ultraviolet].
Using and reusing water during a space flight is a problem NASA had to grapple with. A purification system developed for Apollo spacecraft employs copper and silver electrodes to ionize and destroy algae and bacteria. Today it is used to purify water in swimming pools and in water treatment plants [source: The Futurist].
The fact is, you're likely to encounter NASA spinoff technology wherever you look:
- NASA didn't invent cordless tools, but since there are no extension cords in space, the agency contributed to the technology that gives us portable screwdrivers and battery-powered vacuum cleaners.
- Bicycle makers have used NASA research to develop aerodynamic bicycle wheels with only three spokes.
- A protective coating that NASA developed to protect buildings from saltwater along the Florida coast, where it launches many of its rockets, was adapted by a private company for use on bridges and roadways.
- An intelligent oven that lets you start cooking a meal via your cell phone or the Web was based on NASA computer technology.
Read on for lots more information about how NASA technology has changed our world.
Do you know how WISE works? Learn about its new purpose to look for near-Earth objects like asteroids at HowStuffWorks.
- Beith, Malcolm. "The Profit Mission," Newsweek.com, March 3, 2003. (March 17, 2011)http://www.newsweek.com/2003/03/02/the-profit-mission.html
- Gaudin, Sharon. "NASA research finds way into IT, consumer products," Computerworld, November 17, 2008. (March 17, 2011)http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/329743/NASA_Research_Finds_Way_Into_IT_Consumer_Products
- Johnston, Gordon. "Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) Imaging Arrays," Ranier.hq.nasa.gov, March 3, 1997. (March 17, 2011)http://ranier.hq.nasa.gov/sensors_page/dd/hst&gll_ccd.html
- Marshall Space Flight Center. "Memory Metals Finding Their Way Into Golf Clubs, Helicopters, Operating Rooms, Bath Tubs and Factories," May, 1997. (March 17, 2011)http://techtran.msfc.nasa.gov/new/memmetal.html
- Murphy, Samantha. "What Products Were NASA Spinoffs? New Smartphone App Knows," Space.com, January 19, 2011. (March 17, 2011)http://www.space.com/10648-nasa-technology-spinoff-android-app.html
- NASA. "Inventions from Space. (March 17, 2011)http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/spinoffs2.shtml
- NASA Scientific & Technical Information. "Cooking Dinner at Home-From the Office." Spinoff, 2005. (March 17, 2011)http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2005/ch_2.html
- NASA Scientific & Technical Information. "Spinoff Frequently Asked Questions." (March 17, 2011)http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/spinfaq.htm#spinfaq8
- NASA Scientific & Technical Information. "Composite Sandwich Technologies Lighten Components," Spinoff, 2010. (March 17, 2011)http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2010/ip_1.html
- NASA Scientific & Technical Information. "Forty-Year-Old Foam Springs Back With New Benefits," Spinoff, 2005. (March 17, 2011)http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2005/ch_6.html
- NASA Scientific & Technical Information."Ultraviolet-Blocking Lenses Protect, Enhance Vision," Spinoff, 2010. (March 17, 2011)http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2010/hm_3.html
- Office of Management and Budget. "National Aeronautics and Space Administration." (March 17, 2011)http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/factsheet_department_nasa/
- O'Rangers, Eleanor A. "NASA Spin-offs: Bringing Space Down to Earth," Space.com, January 26, 2005. (March 17, 2011)http://www.space.com/731-nasa-spin-offs-bringing-space-earth.html
- The Futurist. "Space race to marketplace," September-October, 1993. (March 17, 2011)http://www.allbusiness.com/professional-scientific/scientific-research/394479-1.html
- Thespaceplace.com. "NASA Spinoffs." (March 17, 2011)http://www.thespaceplace.com/nasa/spinoffs.html