UPDATE: We’ve updated our list to include yet another NASA-developed technology that is having a momentous impact here on Earth. It’s called FINDER, and it’s being used in Nepal to save earthquake survivors trapped underneath rubble. Read through to learn more about FINDER and 7 other technologies you’ll be shocked to know you can thank NASA for.
Some people like to argue that space travel is a fruitless, low-return government expenditure. The facts, however, paint a very, very different picture.
NASA has inarguably been responsible for developing some of the most important technologies of the past half-century. Indeed, NASA has a rich history of ushering in astonishing breakthroughs in science and technology, with its influence felt across nearly all industries and by every single American—and that’s not an exaggeration.
Space R&D, it turns out, is remarkably applicable here on Earth, impacting everything from healthcare to video gaming technology. Skeptical? It doesn’t take much digging to see how the space agency has helped fuel American innovation and even economic growth since its inception: NASA has conveniently chronicled its long list of successes through its “Spinoff” publication, produced annually since the 1970s.
With Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic helping reignite interest in and enthusiasm for space travel, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to highlight the immense contributions that NASA and its space R&D programs have made to everyday life. While “Spinoff” has chronicled more than 1,800 such breakthroughs over the course of its history, we’ve chosen a handful of the most interesting and surprising such discoveries.
A device that rescue workers are using to find survivors buried under rubble in Nepal, which has been rocked by two powerful earthquakes.
Having been rocked by a deadly earthquake earlier this month, Nepal is once again reeling from a devastating tremor that hit near Mount Everest on Tuesday. In total, the two seismic events have caused thousands of deaths and injuries, according to the BBC.
Even so, rescue workers are continuing to search for those lost in the aftermath. Against all odds, they have even been able to find survivors thought dead, the Los Angeles Times reports. That’s because of a NASA technology that is being deployed in Nepal to identify survivors buried under rubble. According to the LA Times, the breakthrough device, a radar detector dubbed FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response), has thus far led to the rescue of four individuals thought dead.
Co-developed by NASA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FINDER is, at its core, based on remote radar sensing technology the space agency originally created to help search for non Earth-based life, according to Quartz. Since it can identify people buried beneath 20 feet of concrete or 30 feet of rubble, FINDER could become an exceedingly valuable—and likely ubiquitous—disaster relief tool in the future.
A medical device that keeps patients alive while they wait for a heart transplant
First conceived in the 1980s, the MicroMed-DeBakery VAD resulted from a collaborative research effort between NASA scientists and Dr. Michael DeBakery, who spent the better part of a decade studying and testing the device. Based on Space Shuttle fuel pump technology, the MicroMed-DeBakery VAD is credited with keeping patients alive while they await heart transplants by pumping blood throughout the body, lessening stress on the heart.
Collaborating with NASA engineers, DeBakery was able to overcome two of the biological obstacles that had long thwarted researchers hoping to create such a device: Traditional techniques had generated friction that damaged blood cells and raised the risk of blood clotting.
Enter NASA scientists, who were brought on board thanks to their “experience with simulating fluid flow through rocket engines.” The NASA team, led by Cetin Kiris and Dochan Kwak of the organization’s Advanced Supercomputing Division, used advanced modeling pioneered at NASA to develop a new design scheme that ultimately helped overcome those two major barriers, paving the way for the device’s first successful implantation in a patient, in 1998. It has since been implanted in hundreds of people and is a critically important tool in the fight to save terminally ill cardiovascular patients.
Critical insights into bone health that led to improved osteoporosis drugs
Space travel has facilitated breakthroughs in osteoporosis research, according to NASA, which teamed with the pharmaceutical giant Amgen to study bone density decline.
To gain insight into the condition, Amgen flew mice to and from the International Space Station on three different assembly missions. It was through these experiments, according to NASA scientists, that researchers observed that “mice treated with osteoprotegerin decreased bone resorption compared to untreated mice.”
Coupled with ongoing clinical trials Amgen was running back on Earth, space travel was key in the development of Prolia. The F.D.A.-approved drug treats osteoporosis, improves bone density, and is even effective in combating certain kinds of giant cell bone tumors, according to the National Institutes of Health.
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 kinds of technologies help clinicians diagnose and treat illnesses, further their understanding of biology, and prevent innumerable premature deaths every year.
Yet they weren’t invented in a laboratory or a hospital, but rather thanks to research done by the U.S. space program. It was NASA scientists that originally utilized digital signal processing to produce computer-improved images of the Moon during the various Apollo missions, according to the space organization. That breakthrough would eventually have countless other applications, including as the basis for the CAT Scans and MRI machinery so common today.
Mylar was invented in the 1950s to not only protect NASA’s spacecraft from the Sun’s heat, but also to keep them insulated, according to PBS. It has since been used on every manned space flight as well as thousands of satellites and even the iconic Hubble telescope.
Mylar—which, according to NASA, is an “insulating material, a strong, plastic, vacuum-metallized film with a highly-efficient, infrared-reflective, vapor-deposited coating of aluminum”—has since found innumerable practical applications on Earth. Besides its continued use as a spacecraft insulator, Mylar is used to insulate computers and other kinds of electrical systems. Anyone who has ever participated in or watched a competitive running event will also instantly recognize the shiny silver Mylar blankets that runners wear after completing a marathon.
Air purifier technology
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 both 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 would be able to survive long-term space missions. Of particular concern was how to prevent a build-up of ethylene, a gas that plants naturally release that NASA notes 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 eventually became the basis for Airocide, a commercially successful air filtration product.
Anti-icing formulas now used to prevent train delays
The next time your train arrives on time, you can thank NASA’s Ames Research Center, where Leonard Haslim and John Zuk developed a safer, more reliable deicing product than ethylene glycol, a formerly popular deicing chemical that officials eventually realized was toxic.
Haslim and Zuk were able to develop “a nontoxic, biodegradable, and cost effective substitute” to ethylene glycol, according to NASA. Their superior deicing agent was eventually licensed to Midwest Industrial Supply Inc., which combined it with an existing product and readied it for commercial use. The marvel deicing product is now applied to train tracks and switches, preventing weather-related train delays in cities like New York and Toronto while contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue to the company’s bottom line.
Virtual reality technology
Some might think it was in a room full of video game programmers, but virtual reality technology was originally conceived by NASA engineers at the Ames Research Center.
It was there, in 1984, that scientists developed “advanced human interfaces for NASA’s teleoperations that would come to be known as virtual reality.” That fundamental breakthrough continues to drive innovations today. For instance, the virtual reality technology served as the basis for audio products that enable air traffic controllers and fighter pilots to more effectively distinguish different sounds, improving their performance and potentially saving lives.
Aside from its use by military and government organizations, videogame makers like Oculus VR have also drawn upon virtual reality technology as they design new and more interactive gaming systems.