It is commonplace to say that all that was science fiction several decades ago has become reality nowadays. However, people often underestimate the extent to which space technologies have infiltrated our daily lives. We often use appliances or gadgets without even suspecting that they were initially developed to be used in space, in conditions of long-term orbital missions, and so on. Next time you watch a SpaceX launch on television or the Internet, you might want to look around yourself: chances are there is a bunch of things around you that can be referred to as “space technologies.”
Sometimes it can be difficult to believe that a mundane and boring item is of space origins. Take the famous “Dustbuster” as an example: a cordless compact vacuum cleaner massively sold in late 1970s. It was originally constructed for NASA’s Apollo space program. More specifically, during the program, there was a need for a self-contained, portable drill for gathering Moon rock samples. The drill was designed in such a way that it could provide solid motor power, while consuming a minimal amount of energy. The shape of the drill was the result of computer program calculations for optimal form-factor. Later, the idea of this battery-powered device was used as a basis for constructing a series of domestic appliances, of which the most famous one is the “Dustbuster” (Interesting Engineering).
NASA is connected not only to popular vacuum cleaners, but also to more sophisticated technologies we use daily. A computer mouse–something billions of people around the globe use–has appeared due to the bright minds working in the space agency. In particular, among the forefathers of the computer mouse were Bob Taylor and Doug Englebart. The former worked flight control systems and displays, as well as simulation technologies, and the latter was a researcher in the Stanford Research Institute. The joint effort of these two people led to a computer mouse being created in the 1960s. Back then, people mostly saw computers as powerful calculators capable of performing complicated arithmetic. They were bulky, they were inconvenient to use, and manipulating data on them was difficult. The “mouse project” started as a search for alternative ways of manipulating data gathered by NASA during space flights. After Englebart received funding for his project, the device he came up with–the mouse–quickly overcame its competing analogs (the most promising was the so-called light pen). Later, Englebart worked on other computer-related projects, among which was a network of computers the users of which could exchange and transfer information (NASA)—but that is a different story.
Tragedies in Japan and Nepal caused by enormous earthquakes showed how dangerous living in seismic areas can be. Not that it happened for the first time in history, but it definitely boosted the development of a number of technologies meant to protect people and buildings from such disasters. Currently, about 550 buildings and bridges around the world are using shock absorbers–constructions whose main goal is to mitigate earth tremors and shockwaves caused by them. In particular, such absorbers are used in Japan, Taiwan, and the United States. But where did the technology come from? Obviously, from space–or more specifically, from cosmodromes. When a spacecraft is being launched, it needs special suspenders that help it maintain vertical orientation. These suspenders must be capable of moving away quickly during a launch, otherwise they will interfere with the takeoff process and damage the spacecraft, or prevent it from flying. The problem is that suspenders are moved away with such force and velocity that they may overexert and collide with the spacecraft. In order to prevent that, shock absorbers similar to those used in buildings and bridges have been used. This technology has been around approximately since 1969, when humanity first launched a space vessel to the Moon, and has proved itself extremely useful multiple times (Marketplace). So, if you live in Tokyo, San Francisco, or any other seismically active place, chances are that you work or live in a building that utilizes shock absorbers.
Next time you take out your cell phone intending to take a selfie, think of NASA engineers standing behind mobile cameras in your Android or iOS device. Indeed, such cameras are yet another technology first developed for the needs of space travel. It is not like NASA scientists looked for ways to take better pictures of themselves. However, they do need high quality images, and they want their cameras to be miniature but stable and reliable. The research conducted by NASA engineer Eric Fossum was aimed at that: miniaturizing cameras and making them capable of withstanding the harsh conditions of outer space. His contribution was namely reinventing and enhancing CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) matrix technology, creating active pixel sensors. These sensors, unlike previous generations of CMOS technology (the attempts to implement it had been made since 1960s, but none succeeded because of technological shortcomings), can produce high quality images, and thus have been adapted to cell phones and other portable devices (Interesting Engineering).
This list of technologies originally invented within the space industry is not complete. However, it illustrates the fact that even the most mundane and/or habitual technologies are not as simple as they might appear.
“15 Space Age Inventions and Technologies We Use Everyday.” Interesting Engineering, 31 May 2018, interestingengineering.com/15-space-age-inventions-and-technologies-we-use-everyday.
Dunbar, Brian. “Birth of the Mouse.” NASA, NASA, www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/technologies/taylor_more.html.
“6 Everyday Inventions That Were Born from Space Tech.” Marketplace, Marketplace, www.marketplace.org/2017/09/26/tech/6-everyday-inventions-born-from-space-tech.