Free Enterprise Staff  | April 27, 2016

NASA through the ages: Spin-off technologies invented by the space agency

NASA may play an important role in space exploration and aviation innovation, but it’s also a driving force behind several everyday technologies. Here’s a look at some of today’s most-popular and formative products that were developed with help from the space agency.


Mylar is a shining example (pun intended) of an innovative piece of NASA technology that is now used in several everyday consumer items. The product was invented in the 1950s to protect NASA spacecraft from the sun’s heat and keep them insulated, according to PBS, and it has since been used on manned space flights as well as thousands of satellites and even the iconic Hubble telescope.

In addition to its continued use as a spacecraft insulator, the material is used to insulate computers (and other kinds of electrical systems) as well as balloons. Anyone who has ever participated in or watched a competitive running event will also recognize the shiny silver Mylar blankets that runners wear after completing long races.

Air purifiers

If you enjoy clear air, then you owe a debt of gratitude to NASA—which helped develop air purification technology that is now widely used by consumers and large organizations alike.

NASA’s contribution to the world of air purification resulted from a partnership between the Marshall Space Flight Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison that formed in the 1990s, when NASA began studying whether astronauts could survive long-term space missions. Of particular concern was how to prevent a build-up of ethylene, a gas that plants naturally release and has the “unfortunate effect of accelerating decay.”

NASA and Wisconsin researchers eventually developed a “scrubber” that converted ethylene into water and carbon dioxide. Besides its novel use aboard the International Space Station—NASA first deployed the scrubber in 1995—scientists soon discovered that the scrubbers were effective at removing a range of other airborne pathogens. That technological breakthrough would become the basis for Airocide, a commercially successful air filtration product.

Anti-icing formulas now used to prevent train delays

Train arrive on time despite winter weather? Well, you can thank NASA’s Ames Research Center. It was there that Leonard Haslim and John Zuk developed a safer, more reliable product that could be used as an alternative to ethylene glycol, a once popular deicing chemical that was later found to be toxic.

The duo’s superior deicing agent was eventually licensed to Midwest Industrial Supply Inc., which the company combined with its existing products and readied for commercial use. The product is now applied to train tracks and switches, preventing weather-related train delays in cities like New York and Toronto.

The technology underpinning CAT scans and MRI machinery 

Now ubiquitous across the developed world, CAT scans and MRI machines allow physicians and medical researchers to see the inner workings of a person’s anatomy and physiology. These technologies help clinicians diagnose and treat illnesses, advance their understanding of biology, and prevent innumerable premature deaths every year.

These technologies weren’t invented in a laboratory or a hospital; they were the result of research by the U.S. space program. It was NASA scientists who originally utilized digital signal processing to produce computer-improved images of the Moon during the various Apollo missions, according to the space organization. The breakthrough paved the way for the development of the CAT Scans and MRI machinery used today.

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