Mankind hasn’t made many lunar trips since Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the Sea of Tranquility 50 years ago. But even if we’ve quit going to the moon, the space program remains part of our daily lives.
The space race unintentionally led to all sorts of spinoff products — and NASA even gets credit for some it didn’t create.
No, Tang, that powdered orange drink of our childhoods, wasn’t created by NASA. General Foods started selling it in 1959, and it got an otherworldly marketing boost when it went into space with astronaut John Glenn in 1962.
No, Teflon wasn’t developed at the Jet Propulsion Labs. DuPont invented it in 1938, but the space program raised its profile by using it in a variety of applications.
No, NASA can’t take credit for Velcro, which was invented in the 1940s. But it was used to secure equipment in the zero gravity of space.
However, there may not be a day —or night — that goes by when you don’t come in contact with items that came directly from the space program. Don’t believe it? Here's some examples:
Digital camera improvements: Have you noticed how much better cellphone pictures have become? Thank NASA and JPL scientist Eric Fossum, who developed the image sensors necessary to make small cameras for interplanetary missions. Now, they make those great selfies possible.
Memory foam: That material that makes sleep so much easier on Earth was created to make it more comfortable to leave the planet and fly into space. NASA developed it in 1966 to lessen the effects of G forces during takeoff and landing in the seats. NASA created material that could mold to the astronaut’s body and return to a neutral position when unused. Since entering the public domain in the 1980s, memory foam has been used in a variety of products, most notably mattresses.
Hand-held vacuum cleaners: Before Black & Decker marketed the Dustbuster, the company had been contracted to develop a portable, hand-held drill to extract core samples from the moon’s surface. Its research led to the battery-powered vacuum cleaner that’s been popular for four decades.
Lightweight blankets: The super-light and super-thin blankets often included in camping equipment and first-aid kits helps keep people warm, but NASA used it to insulate the outside of some of its spacecraft. Developed in 1964, it’s capable of reflecting up to 97% of radiated heat.
Freeze-dried foods: NASA didn’t create freeze drying, but the space agency improved the process to provide food for astronauts on missions of long duration. Foods were cooked then quickly frozen, then slowly reheated on a vacuum chamber to remove ice crystals that formed during freezing. This kept the food’s nutritional value while greatly reducing its weight.
Infrared thermometers: NASA partnered with Diatek Corp. to develop the infrared aural thermometer, which measures thermal radiation emitted by the patient's eardrum in much the same way the temperature of stars and planets is measured. It avoids contact with mucous membranes and can easily be used for measuring temperatures of newborn patients.
Scratch-resistant lenses: Those old enough to remember Armstrong’s first step onto the moon will also recall an age when eyeglass lenses were actually glass. They were durable and easily cleaned, but they could break. After the Food and Drug Administration mandated shatter-resistant lenses in 1972, the first plastic lenses were safer but easily scratched. Eyeglass manufacturers used plastics NASA developed for astronaut helmets and turned them into better eyewear.
Baby formula: In anticipation of long missions to deep space, NASA explored how to feed the astronauts. It focused on nutrient-enriched algae containing polyunsaturated fatty acids that could help astronauts grow their own food. These nutrients are also found in breast milk and were lacking in earlier instant formulas for young infants. Not anymore.