How did NASA make snow skiing safer?

By: Michael Franco

Winter Sports Image Gallery When you're upside down in freezing cold air with the sun in your face, having the right ski gear is essential to your safety. That's where NASA comes in. See more winter sports pictures.
Adam Pretty/Allsport Concepts/Getty Images

Think NASA, and you're likely to think about Mars rovers, lunar landings and space shuttles. But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has not only sought to explore the worlds beyond our own atmosphere, it has also developed technologies that benefit our everyday lives here on Earth. From sensors that can detect bioterrorist attacks and robot arms that can perform surgical operations, to car tires that last longer, NASA has touched nearly every sector of science.

Technology transferring from outer space to planet Earth might seem like simple happenstance, but it is, in fact, a very deliberate process.


NASA was established in 1958, and as part of its mandate, congress directed the administration to share its technologies with the private sector. And so, in 1962, the Technology Utilization Program was established and began to disseminate NASA's research findings to industries, universities and the general public. In 1976, Spinoff Magazine was created for this purpose. Since that date, it's published more than 1,700 stories about the adaptation of NASA technologies in a wide range of industries.

Perhaps one of the most surprising arenas in which the space program's technology can be found is in sports -- particularly downhill skiing. On the next few pages, we'll explain how rocketing into space has made rocketing down the slopes safer and more enjoyable.


Smart Boots

Perhaps the most important items in any skier's gear are the boots. Of course, the skis themselves matter, but the boots connect the greased lightning of the skis to the body, creating the point at which maximum performance or maximum failure can occur.

To help make ski boots smarter, an inventor named Eric Giese employed the corrugated design found in the joints of space suits. These joints were developed by NASA to help astronauts have a greater range of motion, while keeping the internal wiring of their suits -- such as those that control heating and cooling -- from kinking (think vacuum cleaner hoses and flexible straws).


When applied to the ski boot, the corrugated design allows the foot joint to have a greater range of front-to-back motion while still providing strong ankle stability on the sides. Other ski boots at the time had no hinge at the ankle joint, and this led to distortion in the boot's lower shell when skiers tried to move their ankles. This distortion caused innumerable crashes, and Giese's boots fixed the problem.

Giese's boots were originally developed in a partnership between the company he founded in 1973 -- Comfort Products -- and the Swiss shoe company Raichle (now Mammut). The boots were marketed under the name Flexon and were brought to market in the winter of 1980 and '81. They were quickly adapted by Olympic athletes, which boosted the brand to near legendary status.

After a series of corporate takeovers, the original Flexon design was altered to detrimental effect that saw lovers of the original design take to Web sites like eBay to try to secure replacement parts for their beloved original boots. Most recently, a company known as Full Tilt obtained the original Flexon molds and is now producing the boots the same way they were made 25 years ago.


Vision Protection

Sometimes what's true on the slopes is also true in space. Take the need to see, for example. It's just as critical when you're orbiting outside your spacecraft thousands of miles above the earth, as it is when you're zooming down a slippery mountainside. Yet because the human body is a naturally moist surface, goggles clamped to your face can sometimes fog, obstructing your vision.

This is something astronaut Eugene Cernan discovered during the Gemini 9 mission in June 1966. The plan was to have him rotate around Earth outside of his space capsule for two full orbits around the planet. While the jet-powered backpack that allowed him to keep pace with the spacecraft worked, the test run had to be scrapped for another reason: his goggles kept fogging up.


Back on Earth, NASA scientists got busy working on a solution and came up with a compound made from liquid detergent, deionized water and an oil that, while oxygen compatible, was also fire resistant. Since then, the organization has issued more than 60 licenses for the compound, which has been used to keep ski goggles, deep-sea diving masks and vehicle windows crystal clear.

Another way in which NASA scientists have helped sight on the slopes is through technology that was developed in response to the needs of welders and astronauts. Both are in danger of contracting a condition known as arc eye, which results in inflammation of the cornea and retinal damage from exposure to harmful wavelengths of light. Working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1980s, two researchers used information they'd discovered from studying the eyes of birds of prey to create a welding curtain that could eliminate these harmful wavelengths.

The technology led to the formation of a company known as Eagle Eyes that applied the research to a line of sunglasses promising sharper vision, better depth perception and protection from virtually all of the sun's harmful rays. The product was awarded the honor of induction to the Space Foundation's Space Technology Hall of Fame in 2010.


Hi-tech Insulators

Staying warm and cozy on the slopes and ski lifts might seem like a luxury, but it can actually increase a skier's safety, as well. Cold hands and extremities become slow hands and extremities, so keeping things at a sane temperature can help with reaction times -- and help you avoid dangerous accidents and frostbite.

Dealing with extreme temperatures is something NASA knows quite a bit about. In outer space, temperatures can drop as low as minus 148 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 100 degrees Celsius) [source: Bijlefeld and Burke].


That's why NASA hired a small company known as Aspen Systems, Inc. in Massachusetts to develop an insulating material for space missions. The company turned to a substance known as aerogel, which is made out of the same thing as glass but consists of 99.8 percent air, making it the lightest-known solid. A block of aerogel as big as an average person would weigh less than 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) but could support 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of weight [source: Bijlefeld and Burke]. Not only is it super strong and super light, but aerogel is also an outstanding insulator -- so insulating that crayons placed on top of a thin aerogel sheet won't melt from a flame placed underneath. And thanks to a process invented by Aspen, the previous production methods that made the material too fragile to handle were replaced with techniques that produced stable substances.

One of these substances is something Aspen calls Spaceloft, a commercial version of the materials made for NASA. The first company to create a jacket with Spaceloft was Italian clothes-maker Corpo Nove in 2001. Since then, many other apparel makers have seen the benefits of the material, and now Spaceloft can be found in the jackets of thousands of skiers around the world.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bijlefeld, Marjolijn and Robert Burke. "It Came from Outer Space: Everyday Products and Ideas from the Space Program." Greenwood Press. 2003. (March 22, 2011)
  • Full Tilt. "Our Story." 2011. (March 19, 2011).
  • Integrity Engineering, Inc. "Zoggles Electronic Anti-Fog Anti-Frost Technology." 2010. (March 16, 2011)
  • "flexon to full tilt." July 29, 2010. (March 18, 2011)
  • NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Guinness Records Names JPL's Aerogel World's Lightest Solid." California Institute of Technology. May 7, 2002. (March 16, 2011)
  • NASA Software, Robotics, and Simulation Division. "Ski Boots." (March 20, 2011)
  • NASA Spinoff. "About Spinoff." March 2, 2011. (March 21, 2011)
  • NASA Spinoff. "Aerogel -- From Aerospace to Apparel." 2001. (March 15, 2011)
  • NASA Spinoff. "Covered In Comfort." 2004. (March 22, 2011)
  • NASA Spinoff. "Ultraviolet-Blocking Lenses Protect, Enhance Vision." 2010. (March 14, 2011)
  • NASA Tech Briefs and Solidworks. "Contest History." 2008. (March 17, 2011)
  • Outdoors Magic. "No More Raichle Boots." Gear News. March 16, 2009. (March 18, 2011)