NASA suffers from an interesting problem: NASA gets credit for things it didn’t do and doesn’t get credit for things it did do. The public knows that the investment in space and space technologies brings about innovations that improve our daily lives. An understanding of what those technologies are, however, is something that is often elusive. NASA is often mistakenly credited with inventing commonplace consumer products to which it had either tangential connections or no connections—certainly not an enabling connection. Meanwhile, the real stories of NASA’s technological achievements are often unknown.
This is an issue that has nagged at NASA since the Apollo program. Prior to the success of the Apollo program, for many, travel to other celestial bodies and the associated space technologies were dreams of the future, but with the successful Moon landings, there came the realization that these cutting-edge technologies were things of the present. This generated a keen interest in the public and an expectation that, since we were now living in a “space age,” that these technologies developed for space should reach homes and factories across the country.
This era, the middle portion of the 20th century, was also a period when many new technologies were already reaching the public, spurred by advances in manufacturing and electronics. And while this influx of new consumer electronics and gadgets happened during a time when people were discovering the possibilities of space flight, many of the new goods were not directly related to any space or NASA mission. As a result, to this day, people (sometimes employees of NASA included) often mistake common household goods like microwave ovens, quartz wristwatches, smoke detectors, and barcodes for NASA technologies. While the Apollo program did bring about many significant spinoff technologies—like some of the first practical uses of the integrated circuit, the predecessor of the modern microchip—the difference between recorded spinoff technologies and public perception is pronounced.
The belief that NASA technologies have direct benefit to our everyday lives, though, is not misplaced.
The benefits of NASA technology are all around us. Among those that have had the greatest impact are:
- Nutrition advances now present in 99 percent of infant formula.
- A cardiac pump that functions as a “bridge to transplant” for patients and which has saved hundreds of lives.
- The cameras in many cell phones.
- Memory foam, a material found in everything from mattresses to sports helmets.
- Aerodynamics advances that have been widely implemented in truck designs—today nearly all trucks on the road incorporate NASA technology.
- Liquidmetal alloys that are used in everything from sports equipment to computers and mobile devices.
- Phase change materials that have been incorporated into numerous apparel products.
- Rocket-powered parachutes that can rescue entire airplanes.
- Stunning tensile fabrics that are seen in structures all around the world.
These and many other products have all benefitted from the Nation’s investments in aerospace technology. The list goes on.
A recent analysis of companies who have recently commercialized NASA technology shows impressive results: billions of dollars in generated revenue, billions in cost savings, tens of thousands of jobs created and tens of thousands of lives saved.
NASA is committed to moving technologies and innovations into the mainstream of the U.S. economy, and we actively seek partnerships with U.S. companies that can license NASA innovations and create spinoffs in areas such as health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, renewable energy and manufacturing.
NASA is also committed to telling this story and making sure both that the public is aware of the benefits of its investment in space technology, but also that American industry is aware of the availability of NASA technology research and assistance through its Technology Transfer Program.
Just this month, NASA released its newest edition of Spinoff. A long-standing NASA tradition, this annual report highlights some of the many advances that have come out of NASA’s Technology Transfer Program. Spinoffs in this year’s book alone include:
- An invisible coating, developed by a NASA Dual-Use Technology partner and tested at NASA facilities, that is capable of breaking down pollutants, eliminating odors, and inhibiting the buildup of grime. The technology’s many applications include enhancing the efficiency of solar cells, sanitizing air in the homes of those suffering from cystic fibrosis, and even transforming buildings and towering modern art sculptures into massive air purifiers.
- A robot assistant now found in the halls of hospitals around the country, helping with everything from registering patients to logging vital signs. The robot has been dubbed “a Mars rover in a hospital” by one of its developers, who employed the expertise he gained working on Mars robotics for NASA to create the technology. The robot is not only easing the workload of hospital staff but also providing an economic return, creating 20 new jobs for its manufacturer.
- A recreational trailer designed using the same principles that supplied comfortable living quarters for the crew of the International Space Station. The trailer’s creator used his experience as a NASA architect to create a unique, eco-friendly means for reconnecting with nature and revitalizing interest in our Nation’s parks.
- A solar concentration technology that, for the same amount of silicon, can provide many times the power of conventional panels benefited from innovations developed through a NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) partnership. The company founded to commercialize these NASA-derived sustainable energy installations now employs 30 workers, all with a mission to move renewable solar power into true mainstream use.
- A worldwide search and rescue system that was founded through NASA innovation. Enabled in part by satellite ground stations developed and constructed by a NASA partner, the true value of this spinoff is inestimable. To date, more than 30,000 lives have been saved, on average more than 6 a day, from the highly publicized 2010 rescue of teen sailor Abby Sunderland to the rescue of fishermen, hikers, and adventurers around the world.
The Spinoff report is available online at http://spinoff.nasa.gov, where you will also find a searchable database of the over 1,800 spinoffs NASA has recorded since it began the Spinoff report in 1976.