Space has captured the imagination of the human race since time immemorial, and today is no different. Famous billionaires are often obsessed with exploring the heavens above. It is as if they are the manifestations of our collective wish fulfillment, a deep desire to push the limits of our knowledge and discover what else is out there.
This obsession with space has driven innovation and not only extended the capabilities of technology, but delivered remarkable breakthroughs and created new materials and products. Solar panels, for example, were the powering force behind InSight, the robotic probe launched six months ago by NASA that landed on Mars’s surface on the 26th of November.
Some of these innovations stay in the realm of space applications, but others make their way into everyday usage, often with effects that bring fundamental changes to how we live on earth. For example, space technology is largely responsible for the popularization of solar panels and digital photography. The social impact of some of these technologies is remarkable and world-changing.
To pay homage to the power of space innovations, we have ranked some of the most important and the most unusual inventions that are linked to space exploration. The innovations have been assessed on how long it took them to make the transition from the field of space to the everyday usage, and how long they remained in the marketplace. Of course, a list such as this can’t be completely definitive, but it’s a revealing insight into the effect such innovation has on your everyday life.
1. Scratch-Resistant Lenses
When you think of spectacles and sunglasses, you might not think of space technology, given the fact that they have existed for centuries, but in 1983 they underwent a hugely significant change. During work on a spacecraft water purification system, NASA’s Dr. Ted Wydeven inadvertently developed the technology that would lead to scratch-resistant lenses. While working on a membrane for use in the purification process, Wydeven used the electrical discharge of an organic vapor to coat a filter with a thin plastic film. It was this film that was used by NASA as a coating for such things as the visors of astronauts helmets, owing to the abrasion-resistant properties. In 1983 the FosterGrant Corporation licensed this coating technology and combined it with their own to create scratch-resistant lenses for glasses and sunglasses. It proved to be a shrewd move, and now nearly all lenses are produced in this way. They reportedly last ten times as long as glass or plastic equivalents, making them more sustainable. There is talk of the new Sapphire material usurping it as the material of choice in the future, but for now scratch-resistant lenses reign supreme.
Time to market: 0 years
Time in market: 29 years
Verdict: Straight into daily use and still going strong, an incredible application of space tech.
2. Speedo LZR Racer Swimsuits
Until we colonize the moon or mars, it’s very unlikely that these swimsuits will be leaving planet earth, but with the assistance of NASA these Speedos produced results that were out of this world. Italian company Mectex used NASA’s fluid flow analysis software and wind tunnel testing facilities to develop a technologically advanced swimsuit that markedly reduced drag for swimmers. When the suits first debuted in March 2008, competitive swimmers wearing them went on to break a whopping 13 swimming world records. The results were improved upon at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with 23 of the 25 swimming world records being broken by people wearing the LZR Racer swimming suit. The supreme performance of the suit led some to say it was a form of “technological doping,” and in 2009 FINA (the International Swimming Federation) placed restrictions on the amount of body area that the swimsuits can cover and all-body swimsuits were banned outright.
Time to market: 0 years
Time in market: 10 years
Verdict: Another product that went straight to market, but only for a decade so far
3. Invisible Braces
Originally developed as the material that would protect the infrared antennae on heat-seeking missile trackers, translucent polycrystalline alumina (TPA) found a more unusual home in the mouths of people worldwide. TPA was developed by the NASA Advanced Ceramics Research in conjunction with Ceradyne Inc back in 1986. The material is stronger than steel, but most importantly it is translucent. This makes TPA an ideal material for creating see-through aligners to use to straighten people’s teeth. They first made it to market in 1987, and at this point they are fast becoming the preferred option for this kind of orthodontic treatment, threatening to consign the old train track style of permanent braces to the dustbin of history.
Time to market: 1 year
Time in market: 31 years
Verdict: A strong innovation which took a mere year to make it to widespread use
4. Super Soaker
While experimenting with a new type of refrigeration system for the Galileo mission to Jupiter, NASA engineer Dr. Lonnie Johnson machined a nozzle that shot powerful streams of water when hooked up to his bathroom sink. It sent a lightbulb off in his brain about how much fun a super-charged water gun would be, and the initial seeds of the Super Soaker were sown. He built the first plastic water gun in his basement and gave it to his seven-year-old daughter, who instantly had a more powerful water gun than every kid around. Initially he thought he would produce and sell the guns himself, but he didn’t have the $200,000 of capital needed to manufacture them. It took seven years of talking to toy companies before finding Larami in 1989. They eventually licensed and manufactured the product. By 1991 they had sold 20 million units of the gun, and total sales of Super Soakers are now approaching $1 billion.
Time to market: 8 year
Time in market: 28 years
Verdict: It might have taken a while to get to market, but the sales success has been astounding.
The idea that NASA invented Teflon is an incredibly pervasive myth. Teflon was actually invented by Roy Plunkett in 1938 when he was working for DuPont. Plunkett accidentally discovered the material when attempting to make a chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant. NASA did make the material hugely popular by using it for all sorts of insulations and coatings in space travel. It created an association between space and Teflon that was so strong that most people still believe it to be a NASA invention. But while NASA didn’t invent it, its use of Teflon in space can be credited for the burgeoning awareness and popularity of the material and for making it an integral part of people’s everyday lives.
Time to market: 10 years
Time in market: 70 years
Verdict: There has yet to be a superior mainstream material to top Teflon, which explains why it has spent the longest time in the market of all of the list.
6. Space Blanket
The iconic space blanket is definitively a NASA invention. Created in 1964 for the US space program, the material was primarily used on the exterior of spacecraft for thermal control. It is essentially a thin sheet of plastic coated with a metallic reflective agent, and it reflects up to 97% of radiated heat. What works for the exterior of spacecraft also works for human beings, and in 1978 they started to be used as thermal blankets for people in all kinds of situations. At the finish lines of a marathons, people are often immediately swathed in shiny silver space blankets. The reason for this is that after a marathon the human body rapidly loses heat, often leading to hypothermia. The insulating powers of the space blanket prevent this from happening. They are very lightweight, ranging from 50g to 100g, and their portability is a real boon. The blankets are also very affordable at around €1 per unit. All across the world, the space blankets save lives in many kinds of emergency situations – they are part of the basic equipment of the fire brigade and also of every mountaineer. This fact alone makes the blankets one of the greatest byproducts of space innovation.
Time to market: 14 years
Time in market: 40 years
Verdict: The life-saving capabilities of the space blanket mean that while it took some time to reach everyday use, it is here to stay.
7. Digital Photography
The invention of digital photography is probably the single most far-reaching innovation to have originated at NASA. In the 1960s, Eugene Kelly, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, developed the use of mosaic photosensors to produce still images by digitizing light signals. While it was NASA who developed the concept of the digital photography, the first digital camera was actually created by Kodak in 1975, but it was further research at NASA in the 1990s that really pushed digital photography to a whole other level. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Eric Fossum and his team pioneered a way to improve complementary metal-oxide semiconductor image sensors (CMOS) so that they could be miniaturized for use on spacecraft. Fossum went on to found Photobit, a company that licensed the technology from NASA to produce these sensors commercially. It was a shrewd move as the technology had numerous applications, with none more lucrative than the use of digital cameras in mobile phones. Now almost everyone has this technology in their pocket, with one in three of digital mobile cameras being made by the company Fossum started.
Time to market: 15 years
Time in market: 28 years
Verdict: While it took some for digital photography to make it to everyday use, the resulting ubiquity of the technology is incredible
There isn’t a proliferation of power sockets in space, and when astronauts are collecting samples from somewhere like the surface of the moon, needing to attach the power source to the lunar module is restrictive. It’s for this reason that in 1960 NASA commissioned Black & Decker to develop a special drill that could both handle the tasks of moon exploration (such as drilling as much as 10 feet below the moon’s surface) and also had its own power source. Black & Decker successfully built the drill for NASA, and afterwards the company continued working with the technology and knowledge they had acquired in the process. This led to the development of various battery-powered consumer and industrial products, and in 1981 one arrived that would make its way into a huge number of homes – the Dustbuster. This handheld vacuum cleaner proved to be an instant hit with consumers, selling a million units in its first year alone, and a further 100 million units since then. It’s funny to think that a product first intended for use on the moon is now commonly found in countless kitchens.
Time to market: 19 years
Time in market: 39 years
Verdict: The development and adoption of the dustbuster was slow, but the sales since then have been extremely robust.
As with Teflon, NASA did not actually invent Velcro, and this is yet another incredibly pervasive myth. Velcro was actually invented by Swiss engineer George de Mestral in 1948, somewhat by accident. He observed the natural phenomenon of burrs hooking on to the loops of his clothing fibers, and then was inspired to replicate this for commercial purposes. It took a while to get his idea off the ground, but in the 1960s when NASA used the material for securing lots of different devices in space it increased its popularity immeasurably. In 1968, shoe companies like Puma and Reebok started using it in footwear. It has since then found many other applications and uses, and proved to be a versatile and popular material. If it hadn’t have been for the intervention of NASA, it could have remained a niche and fairly unknown product forever.
Time to market: 20 years
Time in market: 50 years
Verdict: It didn’t catch on with the public initially, but the foothold Velcro has in the market and the lack of viable alternatives indicate it has strong sticking power.
10. Solar Panel
The journey from conception to everyday use was a long one for solar panels. The original invention of the first panel was based on Selenium and dates back to 1883 and Charles Fritts, while the solar cell design that is used in many modern solar panels was created by Russell Ohl in 1939. It took until 1954 for the first present-day solar panel to be produced by Bell Labs, and then in 1958 NASA put it on a satellite. In 1976 the Australian government decided to use solar panels to power the telephone system in the outback, marking the transition to everyday usage. It is now NASA which is helping to push solar technology forward. They worked in collaboration with scientists to produce self-cleaning panels, which are essential in space. There are new developments underway that could push solar panel technology to further places, such as the use of nanotubes in panels. These tiny carbon pillars are so small that they are measured in nanometers, which are a billionth of a meter. Nanotubes can capture more light and also reduce reflected light, increasing the efficiency of panels. In 2017 NASA also tested its first Roll-Out Solar Array. The ROSA is smaller, lighter and more flexible than a traditional solar panel and could have many applications for other Earth-based technologies.
Time to market: 20 years
Time in market: 44 years
Verdict: It might have been slow on adaptation, but the technology will have significant longevity.
11. Memory Foam
Invented by NASA in 1966 as a material to be used in its aircraft seats, temper foam has went on to find a plethora of other applications over the years. Aeronautical engineer Charles Yost of Systems Dynamic Group was tasked by NASA in 1962 to create a material for airline seats that would help increase the chances of passengers surviving a crash. The material Yost invented had the unique characteristics of being incredibly shock absorbent yet still pliable and comfortable. It started being used in aircraft and has since been employed in an incredible range of products, from crash helmets to wheelchair pads and even bulletproof vests. Perhaps the most famous of all the uses for memory foam is in mattresses, where the material’s property of molding to the contours of whatever is applying pressure to it is put to great use. This is a space-related innovation that has touched the lives of countless people on earth.
Time to market: 25 years
Time in market: 27 years
Verdict: Memory foam was around for a long time before it reached daily use, but now it helps countless people get a good night’s sleep.
12. Fuel Cell
William Grove invented the fuel cell way back in 1838, but it didn’t make it into everyday usage for a long time due to its initial inefficiency. In the 1960s they were introduced to the space program to provide electricity and water to the astronauts from the hydrogen and oxygen available in their aircraft. The Gemini V was the first mission to use a fuel cell, and then the Apollo program after that, and they are used in spacecrafts to this day. GM Motors subsequently created the first fuel cell powered car in 1966, chiefly as a way of investigating alternative energy sources and avoid the effects of a predicted oil crisis. UTC Power then manufactured the first large, stationary fuel cell systems for co-generation of power in large buildings such as hospitals and universities. In recent years the fuel cell has made the transition to domestic use. Panasonic marketed the fuel cell for home use and is now selling them in many countries, and most recently Panasonic and German heating company Viessmann have joined forces with the aim of decentralizing the energy supply. The Vitovalor uses a Panasonic fuel cell along with a Viessmann gas condensing module, and the increasing popularity shows that what was once the preserve of spacecraft is now an ideal fit for many homes throughout the world. A collaborative effort between the two German and Japanese entities delivers an innovative product in which water and oxygen are combined, generating heat as well as electricity, thus halving CO2 emissions.
Time to market: 152 years
Time in market: 28 years
Verdict: It might have taken more than a century and a half to reach daily use, but the fuel cell’s time has finally come.
This article is part of the Future Trends Series with friendly support of our partner Viessmann.