You’d probably be shocked at just how many items we use every day started life in a NASA lab. Sometimes you’re trying to get astronauts home safely, and in the process, you invent something that belongs in every home or toolkit.
So whether NASA outright invented the thing or sunk a lot of time and money into improving an existing thing, here are some of the ways the space agency has improved our lives.
It’s tough to pick a particular thing to top a list of everyday things that NASA invented that have an ongoing impact on our lives, given the sheer breadth of things the agency has been involved in over the years.
But it’s hard to top cellphone cameras in terms of how often we use them and how prominent they are in our day-to-day lives. From snapping cute pictures of our pets and kids to recording historical moments that shift public discourse, the cellphone camera has a massive presence in modern life.
And it all started back in the 1990s at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) when a team lead by NASA scientist Eric Fossum successfully miniaturized a Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) sensor. These sensors were clearly superior to the Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) sensors in use at the time, but adoption was slow.
Thankfully Fossum and his colleague Sabrina Kemeny were persistent. They started the company Photobit and spearheaded the use of CMOS sensors in industrial and commercial applications.
Their research and persistence paved the way for the tiny sensors found in your cellphone as well as numerous other applications like compact home security cameras, video doorbells, dash cams, and anywhere else you need a tiny camera package but big results.
Developed back in the 1960s, “temper foam” was originally intended to provide deep and body-conforming cushioning to test pilots in NASA aircraft and later for astronauts to protect them from the intense pressure of space launches and the body-rattling impact of returning to Earth in recovery capsules.
It took a few years and a few revisions to the original foam formula—mostly to tweak it to be less insulative—but eventually, memory foam became ubiquitous. You’d be hard-pressed to find a household in America that doesn’t have one (or a dozen) things with memory foam.
Spend any time in a business environment and you’re bound to come across the name Plantronics (rebranded to Poly in recent years). Their wireless headsets are a staple in offices everywhere.
Back in the 1960s, NASA contracted with a research lab, ITT Labs, to develop a portable wireless radio system to ensure that astronauts weren’t dependent only on ship-based communications. This development arc was particularly urgent to them after Mercury program astronaut Gus Grissom almost perished because flooding in his recovery capsule shorted out his radio equipment with no backup.
ITT Labs built a model around one of Planctronics’ aviation headsets, and NASA ended up working directly with Plantronics to build a compact wireless version right into a helmet.
This led to a long collaboration between Plantronics and NASA, resulting in a variety of innovations in miniaturization, improved wireless communication, noise canceling, and a variety of wireless headphone benefits we all enjoy today.
While NASA didn’t invent portable computers, the organization had a key influence in the very early years of laptop development.
Way back in the infancy of both the personal computer and portable computer markets, NASA and other US agencies contracted with a company called GRiD Systems to secure access to their rugged clam-shell computer, the GRiD Compass—featuring a 320×240 pixel screen, an Intel 8086 processor, 340 KB of RAM, and support for external hard drive and floppy drive modules.
At NASA’s request, various modifications were made over the years, including the introduction of laptop fans. The laptop was originally passively cooled, but in microgravity passive convention cooling didn’t work well, requiring fans to push air over the components. The design choices in those early laptops persist to the present, and in the decades since, we’ve never topped the clamshell.
Whether you’ve paid a premium for scratch-resistant eyeglasses or you’ve simply enjoyed a pair of safety glasses in your garage or at work that seemed particularly long-lived, you can trace that scratch resistance back to NASA. And if you’ve bought some cheap sunglasses or a much pricier welding helmet, you can thank NASA too.
In a bid to make astronauts’ helmet visors more protective against ultraviolet light and more resistant to scratching, NASA researchers, working along with the Foster Grant eyeglass company, advanced both fronts significantly. Since the early 1980s, the non-scratch coatings created by Theodore Wydeven at NASA’s Ames Research Center have been applied to millions of eyeglasses and other surfaces—first on pairs of Foster Grant sunglasses and shortly after on practically everything.
NASA didn’t invent the LED. The history of prototypical LED winds all the way back to the early 20th century, and the LED as we know it now was first invented by General Electric scientist Nick Holonyak, Jr. in 1962.
But what NASA did do is sink a lot of money into funding LED-based research into everything from grow lights to help astronauts cultivate plants on the International Space Station to red and infrared LED lights for wound treatment, of course, a wide variety of research into lighting focused on circadian rhythm maintenance.
In fact, the latter research has found its way into home lighting design and even sleep tools and apps. When you set up a sleep routine with your Philips Hue lights or fire up an app like Sleep Cycle, you’re tapping into decades of NASA research on the subject.
The easy-peasy (and child-friendly) infrared thermometers on the market that just require a quick ear canal insertion or forehead tap started off as a NASA collaboration between the Diatek Corporation and JPL.
The method of temperature taking was based on the same infrared technology NASA used to measure deep space infrared energy sources, repurposed to provide readouts of human body temperatures.
Most of us aren’t walking around every day munching on a daily ration of freeze-dried astronaut rations—though if you haven’t tried freeze-dried ice cream at least once, you’re missing out on a strange experience.
But there’s no denying that freeze drying and other food preservation methods have greatly benefited from NASA’s influence and contributed greatly to improved food safety and storage methods around the world.
NASA-funded research into freeze drying is why, today, you can buy cereal with tiny bits of freeze-dried strawberries, for instance, that seem to “magically” reconstitute themselves into something soft and sweet when dunked in milk.
Want a freeze-dried fact for the road? NASA did fly freeze-dried ice cream in space during the Apollo 7 mission, but it wasn’t particularly popular. In fact, by the 1970s, technology had advanced enough that Skylab astronauts could eat regular old ice cream
You can thank NASA gift shops and curious kids for the enduring popularity of “astronaut” ice cream, as well as the folks at Astronaut Foods who keep the freeze-dried space food dream alive for gift shop goers.
NASA didn’t invent baby formula, but research into inexpensively and safely improving the nutritional value of food served to astronauts in space did.
Back in the 1980s, NASA and the Martin Mariette Corporation were researching the use of microalgae for a variety of purposes, including food, oxygen generation, and waste disposal—all in a bid to make extended stays in orbit and beyond feasible.
In the process, they discovered that a key fatty acid, docosahexaenoc acid (DHA), could be mass-produced using algae strains. They later found a way to produce another key fatty acid, arachidonic acid (ARA), using fungus.
The latter, DHA, became crucial in producing improved baby formula and, later, fortifying milk. In fact, if you look at the label on baby formula or DHA-fortified milk today, you’ll almost certainly find that the DHA is supplied by an algal source.
DHA is critical to brain development, and since the discovery of this cheap production method, millions of babies around the world have enjoyed better brain growth as a result of its inclusion in formulas.
Introduced to the market in 1979, the Black & Decker DustBuster was quite a novelty. It was a tiny hand-held vacuum that ran off an internal battery. That doesn’t sound amazing today—practically everything is handheld and battery-powered now—but it kicked off a battery-powered revolution in home appliances and power tools.
That wave of consumer battery-powered tools was powered by research undertaken on behalf of NASA, however. Black in the late 1960s, NASA had contracted Black & Decker to make battery-powered versions of various tools, like drills for taking lunar samples. The research and computer modeling that went into making high-efficiency motors for the program became the bedrock of the motors that would power the DustBuster and other tools.
Ionization smoke detectors are the most popular type of smoke detectors in the world, and we can thank a collaboration between NASA and Honeywell in the 1970s for improving them.
That collaboration focused on creating smoke alarms for Skylab that would detect fires but not generate false alarms, which led to what were originally advertised as “no-nuisance” smoke detectors when Honeywell brought them to market. The detectors featured a wider range of particulate detection so that a tiny bit of particulate didn’t set them off and were an upgrade over existing commercial models.
Later improvements in smoke detection, like photo-electric sensors, improved things further but ionization smoke detectors remain a cheap and widely available option.
NASA continues to conduct research in the field in service of creating new and advanced ways to detect fires in space—the photo, at right above, shows a type of infra-red laser backscatter smoke detection device designed for the International Space Station by Honeywell. Maybe one day, they’ll even invent a smoke detector that doesn’t expire.
The memory foam connection and freeze-dried foods might have a fairly well-known NASA connection, but most people don’t realize Invisalign and similar “invisible” braces do too.
The material in question is translucent polycrystalline alumina (TPA). It was originally discovered by NASA while researching ultra-strong polymers that could cover radar equipment without diminishing signal transmission.
The original dental application was for dental brace bases on each tooth but still linked together by a wire like traditional braces. Later, companies like Invisalign made alignment trays that covered the entire tooth without connective wires. And while that’s a significant contribution to dentistry, it’s hardly the only one NASA has made.
In the 1970s, a collaboration between NASA and Goodyear Tire to develop stronger materials for the parachute shrouds used on the Viking landers led to improved tires for everyone.
When the fibers were used in radial tire design, it yielded a tire with five times the strength of a traditional steel-radial tire and boosted the tread life.
In addition to other tire innovations over the years, like chain-based non-pneumatic tires, NASA also made a significant contribution to highway safety: safety grooving. If you’ve ever driven over a stretch of highway and noticed the highway had longitudinal grooves carved into it you’ve seen a NASA creation in action.
The grooves were originally applied to runways used for Space Shuttle landings to reduce skidding and have since been applied to roads, sidewalks, and other concrete surfaces for the same purpose.
This is, thankfully, an invention that none of us have to experience every day or even, for that matter, once in a lifetime if we’re lucky.
Historically, emergency extraction tools used to open up crumpled cars or cut through the crushed infrastructure of a collapsed build were heavy. The iconic “jaws of life” rescue tool, for instance, is a large and heavy hydraulic tool.
A collaboration between NASA, firefighters, and the Hi-Shear Technology company led to a really clever repurposing of existing NASA technology. By scaling down the pyrotechnically-charged shearing device used to separate the solid boosters from shuttles into a handheld device that could be used to shear through metal, they created a very portable and very powerful tool for helping rescue people trapped in and under metal.
The resulting product, Lifeshears, has been in use since the 1990s and was even used during rescue efforts after the 9/11 attack.
You’ll often hear reflective emergency blankets, like those emergency responders wrap around car crash survivors and such, referred to as “space blankets.” This is because the reflective metallic material they are made out of was invented by NASA to help shield and insulate equipment and even entire portions of space stations. There’s a reason that shiny-metal-foil look is inseparable from the space program.
Not only does the technology persist in the form of the space blankets used for emergencies and by performance athletes, but a variety of companies have also incorporated the technology into gloves, clothing, and other garments. Which, given NASA’s long history of spurring textile innovation, is no surprise.
Closely related to the insulative properties of the space blankets is the use of NASA technology in home insulation. Many companies make radiant barrier styles of insulation based on technology first developed in the 1960s to help insulate Apollo-era astronauts from the temperature extremes of space, like RadiaSource seen above right.
By sandwiching a lightweight layer of thermal break insulation between two layers of aluminized polymer, this style of insulation can help stabilize the temperature of a home as a fraction of the size and mass of traditional insulation.
Between the original space blankets and radiant barrier innovations, NASA’s research has found its way into everything from our homes to our lunchboxes.
Speaking of finding its way into everything, we could write for months without covering everything NASA’s efforts have brought into the public sphere. If you’ve read over these highlights with interest, we’d highly recommend you check out NASA Spinoff.
It’s an archive maintained by NASA highlighting all the ways NASA discovered or funded technology has been used outside the space program. You’d be amazed at how many little things around you started life as part of the early space program and beyond. From telescope mirror tech improving eye surgery to water filters that work like human kidneys, there is a staggering amount of NASA technology in the world around you.
And if ever the question of “Is NASA worth it?” should cross your mind, it’s about as much of a slam dunk investment as you’ll find. Various economic analyses on NASA funding over the years, like this 2020 economic impact study, consistently find that for every dollar of NASA funding, the direct and indirect economic gain is between $7 to $14. Looking over just this list, no doubt, it’s easy to see why.