Most of us never think about outer space and its intimate connection to our daily lives. It’s a conversation usually reserved for science fiction. But there is more to it than just rockets and stardust. Space impacts almost every aspect of our daily lives. The development of the space industry has transformed our society from an enormous list of products that we take for granted to the medical miracles that shape our quality of life.
Image: NASA on The Commons - Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. Flag on the Moon; Image Number: AS11-40-5875; Date: July 20, 1969
Technology from Apollo
During the 1960s, the American people had a dream of putting a man on the moon. New technologies needed to be invented in order to achieve this monumental goal. This effort developed technologies that were incorporated into the fabric of our lives. NASA led the way and collaborated with thousands of partners to make it happen. The result is a multitude of products that stem from NASA’s research and discoveries.
A large part of this has to do with NASA and how they treat the technology. Because NASA is a government agency and our tax dollars are used to pay for it, many patents and technologies are available to the American people. There is an entire arm of NASA dedicated to sharing new scientific discoveries, patents, and spinoff technologies to businesses.
This is called the NASA Technology Transfer Program. It operates under a primary charter:
"To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes." – NASA
This program has led to all kinds of technology that has entered our lives that we don’t connect to space.
Obvious space-related products
We understand the connection to space for some products, like our cell phones. Many of us know that our signals come from satellites, duh. But did you know that the camera on your phone was invented to take pictures while in space? Other obvious technologies include solar cell technology for satellites, hyperthermia-preventing space blankets, and freeze-dried food to feed astronauts.
Side note: How many of us think of freeze-dried ice cream when we think of astronaut food? Did you know that the iconic dessert has no record of making it to space? It was developed by Whirlpool Corporation who is one example of the many partnerships with NASA. This unique treat was strictly a novel marketing product that was sold to thousands, if not millions, of children in gift shops but was never recorded to have been eaten by an astronaut.
Not so obvious products
Each step of our space journey resulted in giant leaps of technology here on earth. The Apollo program gave birth to products such as cordless vacuums that were developed to suck up moon dust and wireless headsets for hands-free communication. Did you know that baby formula is the result of developing a nutritious astronaut food for space travel?
Names that we associate with everyday products have used space technology to improve their products or create new ones.
Here are a few:
• Goodyear tires are made from the super-strong parachute material that brought our astronauts back to earth.
• Speedo swimwear used space technology to improve the performance of their suits to the point that they were banned from use in competitions.
• Temperpedic memory foam mattress was a spinoff from the packing used in the shuttles to keep astronauts safe during its bumping ride into the heavens.
• LASIK was developed because of the strain an astronaut’s eyes experience in their non-gravity environment.
• The legendary Super-Soaker water gun that has generated over $200 million in retail sales.
• Pillsbury developed systems for food safety that we use today.
• Nestle utilized freeze-dried food techniques.
The list of products is extensive and includes LEDs, laptops, the computer mouse, water and air purifiers, athletic shoes, home insulation, baby food, ear thermometers, firefighter gear, heart pumps, cordless tools, Invisible braces, GPS, and so much more.
More than toys and tires.
Each leap added more life-altering developments that we didn’t even notice. The space shuttle is responsible for grooved pavement on highways to reduce hydroplaning. The workout gym equipment that we spend hours on was developed to keep astronauts healthy during long stays on the International Space Station. How many lives have these technologies saved?
The medical miracles that are born in space impact our quality of life in unexpected ways. Medical advances that were designed to keep astronauts healthy are keeping everyday humans healthy.
Here are a few medical marvels that you may not have known were space-related:
• The scratch-resistant coating on your eyeglasses is a result of a coating developed for spacesuit helmets.
• Insulin pumps were created to monitor astronauts’ health and sugar levels.
• CAT scans and MRI scans are the results of the technology developed for scanning the moon.
• Robotic advancements for the International Space Station has led to new prosthetics and artificial limbs that keep people moving and thriving.
• Cochlear implants, developed by a NASA scientist, have helped over 320,000 people with hearing loss.
Space technology impacting our future
Research is in full swing for all kinds of manufacturing in space. We cannot take many of the things that we will need to live on the Moon or Mars. Supplies will need to be replaced with what is available…out there. Huge strides in technology have been made and will continue to be discovered as we learn how to survive in space.
Image: Space Tango is developing ST-42 — an autonomous microgravity manufacturing facility designed to operate in low Earth orbit and reenter Earth's atmosphere.
Space Tango is one example of the many companies that are revolutionizing manufacturing in space. Based in Lexington, KY, they assist researchers and companies in setting up biomedical experiments in space. They have a long-standing partnership with LambdaVision that is researching and developing the manufacturing process for a protein-based artificial retina that could restore vision for patients who would otherwise be unable to see.
Another exciting technology is in 3D printing. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, will provide the freedom to create the tools and parts we will need for our travels beyond earth. The use of this technology has exploded during the last decade. Additive manufacturing prints three-dimensional objects one superfine layer at a time. This technology is used on earth to print everything from jet engines to affordable housing.
By using this technology, replacement parts don’t require expensive molds, milling, machining, carving, or shaping. It is a precise construction with little waste. Metal, plastic, concrete, ceramic, composites, glass, and even food can printed into new creations. Large 3D printers may build habitats and buildings on celestial bodies using the local materials.
Image: Astronaut Jessica Meir setting up BFF for printing aboard the International Space Station
This technology is also being studied to print human organs. This January, Techshot Inc., a company outside of Louisville, was able to successfully 3D print using human heart cells in space with a bioprinter. They say that doing this process with gravity is a lot like 3D printing with water.
The network of soft tissues collapses in gravity. However, in space, this process works so much better.
Imagine, making a replacement heart from your own cells. In a decade or two, organ rejection could possibly be a thing of the past and waiting for someone else's organs will seem archaic. At this time, almost 114,000 people in the United States are currently on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant. Twenty people die every day while on the waiting list. The ability to print human parts will revolutionize medicine as we know it.
The biggest impact may be in fuel. In order to get to Mars, we will need to be able to produce fuel with the materials found in space. There were no dinosaurs on the moon (I think), so other fuels will be developed. The most likely will be hydrogen-based fuel derived from water. This will ultimately eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels here on earth.
Why should we care about space exploration? Technology innovations that affect everyday life are the result of our aspirations to break free of gravity and explore beyond our planet. This is a small part of what has been achieved without anyone walking on the Moon in the past 48 years. Imagine what would happen if we did.