12 of the Coolest Inventions NASA Has Ever Made
Chances are, your favorite everyday products were originally developed by NASA. Here's how the space agency has made your life better in ways you never realized.
This article was written on a laptop and you may be reading it on yours, and we have NASA to thank for that. (If you’re reading it on your smartphone, same deal—that’s another invention that can be traced back to NASA technology and research.) According to the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, “The SPOC (Shuttle Portable On-Board Computer) was created by adapting the GRiD Compass, the first portable laptop.” Once the technology existed, the hardware was modified and new software was developed for everyday civilian use. And that’s how the commercial market for portable, laptop computers emerged. While on your laptop, start planning a trip to some of the NASA sites that every space nerd needs to visit.
Did you know that the satellite navigation system we know as GPS (Global Positioning System) has an accuracy of up to five centimeters? In the past, it was nowhere near as accurate, at around 15 meters. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab developed software in the 1990s to correct errors in the data from their global network of receivers, according to the Kennedy Space Center. The result: quick GPS in the palm of our hands (via smartphones), as well as GPS devices that don’t need a wireless connection in cars.
Our world, as it exists in our home and vehicles, would be a lot messier if not for NASA. The Dustbuster was created by Black + Decker in 1979, but the small handheld vacuum’s origin story starts with NASA. The space agency actually approached the appliance company to “develop a lightweight device to collect samples on the moon.”
Memory foam mattresses
If you had a great night of sleep on your memory foam mattress last night, you owe it to—you guessed it—NASA. The space agency invented memory foam in the 1970s as a way of making cockpit seats more comfortable for pilots and, later, for long journeys that astronauts would make in space shuttles. Don’t miss these amazing facts about the women of NASA.
Yes, you may get scratches on your sunglasses, but this happened a lot more easily and frequently before the 1980s. The scientific work of NASA’s Ames Research Center changed everything. Of course, they didn’t originally have your sunglasses in mind. The technology responsible for this originated when scientists were looking to create a better filter for the space shuttle’s water-purification system. It was then applied to astronaut helmet visors and other plastic equipment surfaces to make them scratch-resistant. This space-age technology made its way your local store after the government passed rules that glasses had to be shatter-proof and plastic lenses (which replaced ones made of glass) scratched easily. The benefit of NASA’s efforts is now enjoyed every day by welders, skiers whose goggles keep out harmful UV rays, and anyone who has ever bought a good pair of sunglasses.
Insulin-dependent diabetics use NASA technology every day—specifically, technology used on the Mars Viking spacecraft and developed by the Goddard Space Flight Center. Implantable and external insulin pumps, which are used to monitor blood-sugar levels and send signals to release insulin into the body, are based on NASA research originally intended to keep a better eye on astronauts’ health and vitals.
Did you take a selfie today? Or did you snap a random picture of something funny to post on Facebook? That wouldn’t have been possible without NASA technology. The CMOS active pixel sensor that’s used in most devices that capture digital images (like our smartphones and affordable, lightweight DSLR cameras) was invented by NASA for a very different reason: to miniaturize cameras for interplanetary missions. NASA changed a lot more than just the way we take pictures. Check out the NASA discoveries that changed the way we look at the world.
According to the Kennedy Space Center, which originally contracted them, “Aspen Technologies developed aerogel insulation to keep astronauts at comfortable temperatures in space.” A company called Oros then used aerogel to make the company’s first “Lukla” jackets, which could be worn without any layers and still keep people warm in extreme temperatures. Today, we see the benefit of this NASA technology in every outerwear store, and we are less bulky and sweaty in the winter as a result.
Enriched baby formula
Baby formula isn’t just for babies—well, not originally, anyway. When looking for ways to sustain life on long Mars missions, NASA researchers discovered a natural source for an omega-3 fatty acid found primarily in breast milk that plays an important role in infant development. Since that discovery, NASA points out, “the ingredient has been added to more than 90 percent of infant formula on the market and is helping babies worldwide develop healthy brains, eyes, and hearts.” NASA may have discovered this baby-food innovation, but these are the foods NASA banned from going into space.
NASA research and technology have made nearly every aspect of life on Earth better, including access to purified water. According to NASA’s 2004 Spinoff publication, “In the 1960s, NASA’s Manned Space Center (now known as Johnson Space Center) and the Garrett Corporation, Air Research Division, conducted a research program to develop a small, lightweight water purifier for the Apollo spacecraft that would require minimal power.” That technology now helps public agencies, businesses, and private citizens to ensure that their water is clean, safe, and drinkable.
Safer highways and airport runways
The NASA Langley Research Center’s Safety Grooving research program has legitimately saved lives. The space agency notes that this technology has reduced accidents on slippery highways by up to 85 percent. What was their big innovation? “Cutting thin grooves across concrete runways to create channels for excess water to drain reduces the risk of hydroplaning.” Since these findings, hundreds of commercial airports around the world have also been grooved, improving aircraft tire performance in wet conditions by as much as 300 percent. Grooving has also been applied to most well-traveled highways in the country, as well as to swimming-pool decks, playgrounds, and factories and other work facilities.
Ice can be dangerous for any sort of travel, but especially air travel. NASA came to the rescue here, with a variety of developments that mitigated the dangers presented by icing, like heating the wing’s leading surfaces. Today, thanks to the work at the Icing Branch at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, deicing and anti-icing technology is now used on commercial airplanes, making aviation safer for anyone flying in extreme wintertime weather. Next, check out these 24 amazing facts you didn’t know about NASA.