Even if you’re not an astronomy enthusiast, you probably think about NASA at least occasionally—e.g. whenever the organization rockets some people into space, lands a rover on Mars, or gets featured in yet another Hollywood blockbuster like Apollo 13 (1995) or Hidden Figures (2016). But whether or not NASA is constantly on your mind, a few of its inventions might be on your person and/or in your house even as you read this.
Since NASA was established in the 1950s, some of the technology it has developed for space has been licensed to companies to make products. They’re called spinoffs in NASA lingo, and today they can be found in cars, baseball helmets, and even our phones. Here are a few you might not be aware of, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. The Dustbuster
Back in the 1970s, NASA’s Apollo astronauts were busy taking samples of the moon’s crust to send back to Earth. They didn’t have a problem scooping up dust from the surface, but to get a better picture of the lunar soil, they needed to design a new drill to retrieve core samples. The new machine had to be small and lightweight to fit on the lunar lander, and it had to have its own power source.
NASA hired Black & Decker to create the tool [PDF], and the company developed a computer program to optimize the drill’s design. It ended up being so successful that the company continued using the program in new consumer products. In 1979, they released the Dustbuster—a cordless, lightweight, hand-held vacuum built on the same principles as the moon drill. It weighed only two pounds and recharged its batteries in its own charging bracket. Black & Decker also developed cordless power tools, hedge and grass trimmers, and medical devices based on the Dustbuster’s technology.
2. Freeze-Dried Food
Though NASA didn’t invent the process behind freeze-dried food, they’re one of the major reasons the technology took off. In the 1960s, NASA began developing space food for its astronauts. The food had to be nutritious, but also lightweight, shelf-stable, and easy to eat in space—meaning no crumbs that could fly around in zero Gs and clog delicate equipment. They started off with food in what were essentially toothpaste tubes, but eventually went to the Army Natick Laboratories, which had been working on freeze-dried meals for the military. The lab had developed a product that required boiling water and waiting 20 minutes for the food to become edible. NASA needed a product that could be reconstituted in 10 minutes with room temperature water. And under NASA’s funding and direction, that became a reality.
While the food lab continued to experiment with different freeze-dried items for astronauts, NASA licensed the technology to other government agencies. In the mid-1970s, Texas organizations launched a program to provide nutritious freeze-dried meals based on NASA’s tech for elderly residents [PDF], and in New York, a company called Sky-Lab Foods developed NASA-style freeze-dried meals for seniors and homebound individuals [PDF].
Possibly the most famous astronaut food of all time, freeze-dried ice cream, may or may not have ever made it to space. It’s said the ice cream went up on Apollo 7, but when crewmember Walter Cunningham was asked about these reports decades later, he said, “they don’t know their ass, obviously. We never had any of that.” Whether astronauts ever enjoyed it or not, the Styrofoam-like bar of freeze-dried chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream was a big hit with kids, and today, it can be found in gift shops and theme parks around the world.
3. Athletic Wear Fabrics
Some NASA innovations are so ubiquitous we don’t even realize we’re wearing them. Fabrics developed to keep astronauts protected from the inhospitable environment of space have found their way into athletic wear and outdoor apparel. A bioengineer at Johnson Space Center launched a brand called Techni-Clothes in 1982 using spacesuit cooling system technology. The line of headbands and running shorts, aimed at joggers, featured small pockets where cooling gel packs could be inserted to transfer heat away from the skin. Another product based on NASA materials was the Support-Her Bra, a stretchy knit sports bra designed to prevent abrasion and “mammary bounce” [PDF].
More recently, NASA technology has been used in UV-blocking cooling fabrics in swimwear and casual apparel, and astronauts on the International Space Station tested performance fabrics as part of the SpaceTex study. They evaluated the textiles’ ability to wick sweat, resist bacterial growth, and control odor—all important considerations for anyone potentially colonizing Mars.
4. Fogless Coating for Goggles, Glasses, and More
You can see right through some of NASA’s inventions—and that’s the point. When its spacecraft windows fogged up before launches, NASA developed a fogless coating for the glass that was later licensed to more than 60 companies. Made of liquid detergent, deionized water, and fire-resistant oil, the solution is used to keep scuba masks, ski goggles, car windows, fireproof helmets, and eyeglasses fog-free [PDF].
5. Scratch-Resistant Lenses
Speaking of glasses, NASA also helped create scratch-resistant lenses. When the FDA mandated in 1972 that all eyeglasses had to be shatter-resistant, manufacturers replaced glass lenses with plastic. The downside was that plastic got scratched easily.
In a completely unrelated series of events, NASA scientist Theodore J. Wydeven, Jr. was working to improve water purification systems on spacecraft and developed a way to apply a specific kind of thin plastic coating. NASA realized this innovation had other applications, including making scratch-resistant coatings for space helmet visors. With the help of sunglasses company Foster Grant, the technology was soon applied to plastic lenses, to the tune of 5 million pairs of sunglasses in just three years. Today, anti-scratch coating is included in almost all eyeglass and prescription sunglass purchases.
6. Cold-Resistant Tires
For the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, the crew landed on the moon to explore sites of interest. To make their work easier, NASA designed a portable workbench on wheels dubbed the Modularized Equipment Transporter, or MET. Astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell, who dragged it across the lunar landscape, called it the Rickshaw. The Rickshaw’s tires were engineered by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for the Johnson Space Center to withstand the harsh lunar environment. They remained rubbery at minus 195°F.
Here on Earth, at the time, summer tires would go stiff and lose traction in winter. Studded winter tires were one attempt to solve that problem, but they introduced their own issues, like chewing up road surfaces. Once the special moon tires had been developed, Goodyear and other manufacturers began offering winter tires that were formulated to stay pliable at cold temperatures. And the Goodyear tires included another NASA innovation: Their cords, which give stability to the tire’s shape, were made of the same super-strong material as in the parachute lines of NASA’s Viking Lander, which touched down on Mars in 1976.
7. Memory Foam
NASA was the driving force behind developing a shock-absorbing foam in the mid-1960s to make airline passengers safer. After creating seat cushions with this foam, engineers realized it would not only protect passengers in case of a crash, but also be more comfortable on long flights because it distributed the sitter’s weight evenly. It was called “slow spring back foam,” but when a NASA-affiliated company began licensing the product to other manufacturers, it was renamed Temper Foam.
NASA calls Temper Foam its “most recognized and widely used” spinoff. Temper Foam has been used in Little League baseball helmets, the Dallas Cowboys’ football helmets [PDF], and in other sports equipment to protect athletes [PDF]. The foam gives support to hospital beds for patients, and cushions prosthetic limbs for people and thoroughbred horses. It’s also used in motorcycle and helicopter seats.
One of Temper Foam’s benefits is that it can match the contour of the object pressing against it and then return to its previous shape once the object is removed—almost like it has … memory. As you might have guessed, Temper Foam, a.k.a. memory foam, is the key component of Tempur-pedic mattresses and dozens of other bedding products.
8. Aluminized Mylar
Another NASA invention we see regularly is aluminized mylar. This super-lightweight, silvery sheet is shiny on one side to reflect heat. When it faces inward it keeps heat in. Satellites were dressed up in mylar to reflect solar radiation [PDF]; mylar also insulated spacesuits. It was eventually licensed to sports outfitters to make lightweight, heat-conserving “space blankets,” jackets, ski parkas, and emergency equipment. Marathoners often wrap themselves in mylar sheets after they complete a race, presumably to stay warm and/or let everyone know they just ran over 26 miles. You might also see the material in mylar balloons, which stay inflated a lot longer than latex balloons because the mylar is far less porous than latex.
9. Aluminized Polymer Insulation
Aluminized polymer sheets were also a crucial part of the Apollo missions. They insulated the command modules—and the astronauts inside—from solar radiation and space temperatures that could swing between 400° and -400° Fahrenheit. The shiny film was so efficient at reflecting radiation that companies began using it as insulation in homes and commercial buildings. The Quantum International Corporation developed its Radiant Barrier products using NASA’s mylar sheeting to both reflect solar radiation and keep interior temperatures either warm or cold—kind of like how a Thermos can keep coffee hot or water cold for hours [PDF]. The Radiant Barrier technology has been adapted for use in commercial refrigerated trucks and passenger vehicles, too.
10. Elements of Consumer Laptops
NASA added its tech to an early laptop in the mid-1980s. On a Space Shuttle mission in 1983, NASA astronauts first used the Shuttle Portable Onboard Computer, or SPOC. This small navigation monitoring computer was adapted from a commercial machine called the GriD Compass, which featured a flat screen, full-sized keyboard, and clamshell-style hinged construction.
NASA modified the design, incorporating components that would eventually end up in consumer laptops, such as fan-based cooling. They also added some flourishes that didn’t find much use on computers here on Earth, like Velcro strips on the bottom to keep it from floating away [PDF]. Based on its partnership with NASA, the GRiD Compass became popular with other government agencies and the military, as well as energy and telecommunications companies.
11. CMOS Sensors
Our final NASA invention is one that a lot of us use everyday: the camera in your smartphone. It started with the complementary metal oxide semiconductor image sensor, or CMOS, which NASA had developed to capture high-quality images on spacecraft. A NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer named Eric Fossum, who had refined the CMOS’s capabilities over several years, licensed the invention and began to partner with companies like Kodak and Intel to create custom sensors.
The sensors found a home in DSLR cameras and in the GoPro—where a lightweight high-def video camera could shine—but it took mobile phones to really make the technology ubiquitous. Its small size and low power requirements made it a perfect fit for cell phones. By 2013, more than a billion CMOS image sensors had been produced, with many ending up inside smartphones. It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that this NASA innovation helped launch the careers of thousands of Instagram influencers.
And One Thing NASA Didn’t Invent: Space Pens
As the legend goes, NASA realized that normal pens wouldn’t write in the microgravity environment of space, so it spent zillions of dollars trying to invent a pen that did. The Soviet space program, meanwhile, gave their cosmonauts pencils, supposedly illustrating what happens when common sense takes a backseat to bureaucracy.
In reality, the Fisher Pen Company invented the pen that writes upside down in 1965, and it addressed a real need; compared to pencils, pens pose less risk of breaking or sending stray graphite dust near critical components aboard a space shuttle. Fisher’s space pen worked so well that NASA and the Soviets ended up buying the pens for their programs.