During the Great Government Shutdown of 2013, NASA was offline and unable to continue whatever science-y things they were up to at the time. In light of their downtime, it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on just how much they’ve done to help us in our everyday lives. NASA has developed a lot more than most of us realize, and listed below are ten of those that should surprise you the most.
It seems hard to believe that something as big a fashion statement as sunglasses could have NASA scientists behind it, but there’s a very logical reason for this. Many workers at NASA are frequently exposed to damaging light, which would severely affect their vision in the long run. And not just the ones that go into space, mind you — the scientists who send them up there are the ones in the most danger. Those on the ground are frequently exposed to powerful flashes, lasers, welding flares and so on.
Over time, this can be very detrimental to their health, and so NASA developed something to protect their vision. They learnt that raptors (the bird, not the dinosaur) have a special oil in their eye that protects them from harmful wavelengths, and mimicked this by using dyes and zinc oxide, which filters out damaging UV light. After they had created the technology for their staff, they used it to develop sunglasses to protect the rest of the world from the sun’s harmful rays.
9. Water Purification
More and more people these days have water purifiers in their kitchens. And they may be necessary, depending on where you live. If you happen to live in the International Space Station, water purification is imperative. Previously, it could cost up to $60 million just to get water up to the International Space Station but, seeing as water is a necessity for life, it was a cost that had to be endured.
But now, thanks to a new process known as forward osmosis, 93% of all water on the space station is recycled (including bodily fluids.) This has doubled the amount of water available in the station, and cut the amount of trips required to deliver new water by over half. If the scientists up there are willing to wait twice as long for new water by drinking their own pee, it must be a pretty fantastic filter.
8. Cordless Tools
This may not seem like a totally revolutionary advancement, but there’s a lot more science behind cordless tools than we realize. Electric tools used to consume a lot more energy than they do now, so when scientists wanted to take samples from below the surface of the Moon, they needed to create small, powerful and efficient tools that the astronauts could carry.
So NASA worked with Black and Decker to create energy-efficient battery-operated tools for astronauts, which then went on to be used by the rest of us down here on Earth. Not only are cordless tools less cumbersome and safer, but they paved the way for other battery-operated technology, meaning we don’t have to walk around with iPads plugged into the wall.
7. Better Baby Food
This is probably the most surprising item on the list. Has NASA got some sort of secret astrobabies project? Unfortunately, the hilarious reality of tiny spacesuits is still a good bit away. Still, it makes sense that NASA would want to come up with easy to transport, nutrient-rich food.
Only that’s not what they were doing. They were actually trying to come up with ways to create oxygen by photosynthesizing algae, when they realized that they algae had Docosahexaenoic and Arachidonic acid, both found in breast milk. They were fine-tuned, and eventually added to baby food all over the world, greatly improving the health of children everywhere.
6. An Improved Game of Golf
Given that golf is the only sport that has been played on the Moon, it makes a bit of sense that NASA was more than happy to work in conjunction with golfers to improve both their worlds. NASA allowed a golfer from the Ben Hogan golf company to hit a ball in front of their rapid-capture cameras, which allowed engineers from Ben Hogan to analyze the ball’s movements and tailor their next ball to suit them.
Furthermore, NASA needed a metal that would easily repair damage from space debris. To do this, they created a metal that reverts to its original shape after a little heat is applied. This development led to golf clubs that flex ever-so-slightly when swung, but this slight bending is enough to give the golfer much more control over their swing.
5. Modern Firefighter Suits
Astronauts have to deal with some pretty extreme conditions in space, and so require a lot of protection. In 1997, two firefighters approached NASA scientists and asked if there was any way they could figure out how to improve their gear. Heat is the biggest danger posed to firefighters (even the heat generated inside the suit,) but unclean air is a close second. They reasoned that if suits used by astronauts could protect them, there must be something they could do to help firefighters.
And they were right. NASA worked with the firefighters to create the Supercitical Air Mobility Pack. This small device cools both the firefighter and the air they breathe, and also cleans the air for them, and has become widespread since the early 2000’s.
4. Freeze Dried Food
While not exactly the shining image of healthy eating, freeze dried food can be very important for many people’s survival. While it may now be used mostly for frozen dinners, freeze dried food is an essential part of living for people like backpackers, submarine workers and, of course, astronauts.
NASA worked with Oregon Freeze Dry Inc. in the 1960’s, and together they developed a way to freeze dry foods that, after a simple injection of water, would become edible. This allowed food to be packed more efficiently and last longer, benefiting anyone who needs to take food on a long journey, be it on Earth or beyond.
3. Camera Phones
As if it wasn’t enough that NASA helped develop technology that could function without a plug-in power source, they also likely helped develop the camera for the phone you carry with you everywhere.
It was a scientist in 1965 named Eugene Lally from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the same guys who helped make sunglasses) who came up with the sensor that collects photons and turns them into electrons. The resulting electrical signal is converted into a picture, giving us digital photography. Tiny, durable, high-quality cameras were crucial to conducting research in space, and Lally had completely revolutionized the way we take photos (he also came up with the word pixel.)
The already-small device only grew smaller with time, and from the ’90s onwards, they were marketed to the general public, inevitably working their way into phones. So once again, we took one of the biggest scientific advancements in recent history, and used it for ridiculously trivial purposes, like uploading pictures to Instagram and lowering their quality. It’s estimated that about 1/3 camera phones use the technology developed by NASA.
2. Virtual Reality Helmets
Virtual reality is one of those advancements that has moved slowly, and has yet to really take off in a mainstream way. Only a few years ago, we all thought we’d soon be sitting in the middle of our favorite sitcoms, or wearing a cool helmet to play video games. While this isn’t the case, VR can still be fun in places like Disney World, or those “4D” theaters we’ve probably all been to once and never again.
While virtual reality had been used to train pilots in flight simulators as early as the 1930’s, it was a NASA scientist who developed the helmets in 1985. These helmets were not only fitted with small screens, but were also linked to a computer that could track the movements of the wearer’s head, so the images reflected where they would be looking in a real environment. This was a great step forward for the technology, and was used in training. It was so good in fact, it is currently being used to train people in CPR, as it turns out they learn faster that way. This is because there’s a faded image on their VR screens of an instructor doing the CPR correctly, and the trainee simply has to line up with what the instructor does.
1. Shoe Insoles
Aerogel is a substance developed by the company Aspen Aerogel Inc., and is a very strange substance indeed. It’s a lightweight material that’s been likened to sponge or Styrofoam. And while it shares many characteristics with them, if dropped, it sounds like glass.
It’s also one of the greatest insulators we have on the planet. In one demonstration, crayons were placed on a thin piece of aerogel and a blow torch was lit on the other side. The crayons were completely unharmed. Now as you can imagine, firing a giant rocket full of people out of the atmosphere can get a bit hot, so NASA stepped in and helped to develop this product further than Aspen Aerogel had already.
The result was the aerogel that we have today and, apart from using it on spacecraft, it has been sold as insulation, carpet, medical bands, and insoles for shoes. It may seem trivial, but aerogel’s sponginess takes a shocking amount of pressure of your feet and legs, enabling you to move around for much longer periods of time pain-free.