I remember reading a section of a science textbook in elementary school in which I learned some of the inventions that were inspired by the space program. I was surprised to learn that Velcro, flame-resistant materials and aluminum blankets were all derived from the innovative technologies used to get us into orbit and onto the moon. From then on, whenever I wore my Velcro Transformers shoes, I felt like I was floating.
Since then, corporations have not stopped taking inspiration from NASA, and NASA designers and engineers have not stopped working for the private sector on the side. The result is an entire list of materials and inventions considered Spinoffs of America’s quest for space.
Why is this important? Because, in the eyes of the public, the space program needs to justify itself. If you tell a politician that a space station will help us to conduct goldfish equilibrium experiments in zero G (which is true), that politician will scoff. But if you then mention that NASA programs helped to inspire the Dustbuster, suddenly you will have his attention. After all, where would his district be without the portable hand-vac?
NASA has a new interactive feature on their website that allows a user to see all the different ways that everyday materials were influenced by 60 years of space innovation. Some things, like toothpaste you can swallow and the coating on sunglasses, really make us step back and appreciate the pathway of innovation. Others, like the portable X-ray used to test the effectiveness of carpet cleaners, make us wonder how anyone would ever think to x-ray their carpet.
The feature reads like the J. Peterman catalog of Materials Science. Much of the information was given by companies who were claiming a NASA relationship in much the same way that people claim to be descended from royalty. Sometimes it seems like a stretch, like the aerodynamic bicycle helmet designed by a NASA engineer. You could probably clean the floors in Cape Canaveral for a year and then go to work as a chef in a diner, and realistically hear this exchange:
“Wow, these eggs are really good. Your chef has some talent.”
“Well, ma’am, he should. You know, he worked for NASA!”
“Wow! No wonder it tastes out of this world. Ha, ha, ha! (sigh). Oh, I’m just kidding.”
It’s worth noting that very few government agencies have been as prolifically helpful to the spectrum of invention. When was the last time you discovered a new product that proudly boasted that it was created by technology inspired by the IRS? No one would ever buy products based on FEMA innovations. We have no idea how much the CIA, NSA and, of course DARPA, have contributed (or what secret alien technologies they’ll reveal in time.)
So if you ever look up at the stars and think, “sure there’s a lot of stuff up there to explore, but what’s in it for me?” NASA would be glad to tell you. And don’t be surprised if every family on your block has a robot with a 24-foot wingspan attached to their porch in a few years. All the kids will want one, and everyone can use a hug. Just remember who to thank for that embrace.
(www.nasa.gov Link the lower end of the page, with a picture of a flat Earth.)