Space, the final frontier! Science helps us explore our natural world, deduce and understand what makes everything work the way it does. Creation and innovation using science was a mere advancement for us humans. But one power that gives us the most strength is our ability to imagine.
We’re curious, us humans. I firmly believe several important innovations happened because the idea was imagined first and expressed through an art form.
If you’ve seen shows like Star Trek, they’ve largely set the precedent for what happens in the future. Talking about how many advances in technology or ideas that came through from the show is an article on its own, so I’ll leave that for later! This article is going to explore scientific inventions or tools important to us, that were either an offshoot of space exploration, or found their way into our homes after having proved to be high in utility during space research. Nerd out!
The technology behind digital photography or capturing digitized images was just an idea at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) by engineer Eugene Lally in the 1960s. But it was the tech of CMOS image sensors that really made the application of miniaturized cameras more rampant in the late 90s and early 2000s. According to NASA, a JPL team led by Eric Fossum was looking for ways to improve what are called complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) image sensors. This means small and miniature cameras could be created for interplanetary spacecrafts, while maintaining scientific image quality. Fossum invented the CMOS active-pixel sensor (CMOS-APS), resulting in improved image quality for complete miniature imaging systems that operate quickly with low power demands.
This technology then grew out when Fossum realized the CMOS-APS technology would be useful not only for imaging in space but also on Earth! While this technology was shared with the world, French engineer and entrepreneur Philippe Kahn had developed and received the patent for the first camera phone. You can say NASA helped create digital cameras small enough to fit into a phone! This invention took a life of its own ever since.
NASA first created scratch-resistant space helmets for astronauts who travelled into space to avoid any damage to the helmet. This led to NASA commissioning revolutionary eyewear company Foster Grant (since 1929) and licensing them to experiment with more scratch-resistant materials and plastics. We use this technology in our lenses and sunglasses today across the world!
According to an article in USA Today, NASA had importantly created the first wireless, light and hands-free communication system that allowed astronauts in space to contact teams on Earth. Two pilots invented the prototype, and further revised to make powerful wireless headsets. These were used in NASA’s Apollo and Mercury missions. Long-range wireless headsets are used till date, even on earth.
You’re asking why someone would need these? I was puzzled the first time I read it too! It’s used for babies, sometimes adults and even for animals as a convenient way to check temperature. Using infrared astronomy technology to measure the amount of energy emitted by the eardrum, NASA and leading diagnostics company Diatek invented the ear thermometer. You can always use a normal thermometer in the mouth, armpit, or anywhere else, but we HAD to find another crevice on the human body to detect temperature! xD
As artificial intelligence only grew increasingly since World War II and the space race, the field of robotics and cybernetics also grew exponentially. During NASA’s shock absorption innovations, including shock absorbers we use for buildings today, they used their innovations to improve artificial muscle systems, robotic sensors, diamond-joint coatings, and temper foam. This helped advance artificial limbs to be more durable, functional, and as ‘life-like as possible. Who knows where we’ll reach in a few years at this rate!
Water Purification Systems
We all need drinking water to survive, wherever we are. The question was, how do we purify water in space for astronauts on the International Space Station? According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the 1960s saw a revolution in water purification when an electrolytic silver iodizer was created to purify astronauts’ drinking water! You can’t keep sending a tanker with water supply into space every now and then, you know? This iodine technology is also used today to purify water in public pools and closed water containment.
Of course, the idea of having insoles or inserts in shoes for the first time was not done by scientists looking to ease astronaut’s feet. This technology was more like creating a special type of insole designed to help astronauts spring up. This ‘blow rubber molding’ technology was immediately adopted by sports and athletics brands. According to NASA, blow rubber molding was used to produce helmets and make hollow athletic shoe soles designed to be filled with shock-absorbing materials. The idea was also pitched to Nike Corporation by former NASA engineer Frank Rudy, and his concept gave birth to the Nike Air. Most of our shock-absorbing shoes today are based on this technology!
Again, not an invention made during space exploration or facilitation, but definitely popularised by it! When you’re travelling long distances, especially to space, every single gram and ounce of weight is taken into account. Freeze-drying food seemed to be the most viable option to use in space since it made food light enabling efficient storage, and it still maintains its nutritional value until it is eaten.
Swiss Engineer G. de Mestral accidentally discovered velcro (doing who knows what!) in 1948, and this led to one of the most important textile inventions till date! The popularity of this material increased when NASA used the material to secure different devices floating around in space in the 1960s. Shoe companies like Puma and Reebok began to use it in footwear from somewhere around 1968.
In 1966, memory foam was invented by Charles Yost, who was under contract with NASA. The material, known as viscoelastic polyurethane or low-resilience polyurethane foam was temperature-sensitive, and it would soften in reaction to body heat. It was used to improve safety for astronauts as it was integrated into aircraft cushioning. It takes the shape of the person or surface against it and springs back slowly to its original shape. This increased the comfort against G-force for astronauts as well. Since this invention, the technology has been used worldwide in pillows and mattresses. While it may come with its set of health concerns, it has been a remarkable invention of our times!
This list will go on forever if I name things that space exploration and travel popularized. While only half of these things were exclusively invented for space, special shout out to the inventors of LED, portable computers or laptops, the ballpoint pen, microwave ovens, solar cells, CAT Scans, computer mouse, GPS, and more, for their contributions to a scientifically progressing world!