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10 Everyday Innovations That Came From NASA Research

NASA’s Technology Transfer Program is “the agency’s oldest continually operated program,” according to Spinoff, its annual guide of consumer products developed from NASA technology. The agency has issued the guide since 1976 to emphasize just how much NASA research has gone into products and innovations that you see in everyday life. It's catalogued 2000 innovations and counting. Here are 10 technologies that owe their existence to space exploration.

1. CELL PHONE CAMERA, 1995

The world's most popular selfie tech is also NASA’s most ubiquitous spinoff technology. Cell phone cameras use a complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor—not a new technology, but one revolutionized at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which made the sensor smaller, lighter, and able to produce a cleaner image. Coincidentally, the very notion of digital cameras was born at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1960s.

2. DUSTBUSTER, 1981

Its origins trace back to the Apollo program, when NASA contracted Black & Decker to design a special drill for taking core samples of the lunar surface. The computer program used to develop the low-powered, battery-operated moon motor was then used in the consumer space. A plethora of home cordless tools, and a tiny vacuum cleaner, were born.

3. MEMORY FOAM, 1966

The key ingredient in your comfy pillow was developed to absorb shock and improve the comfort of airplane seats. Today, the ubiquitous “slow spring back foam” improves just about everything, from football helmets and mattresses to race cars and saddles. Ironically, airplane seats remain uncomfortable.

4. EAR THERMOMETER, 1991

The thermometer sensors were first developed for satellites to check the temperatures of stars and other celestial objects by reading infrared radiation. The underlying technology was modified to measure the energy emitted from the human eardrum, making it much easier on everybody to see if the baby has a fever.

5. BABY FORMULA NUTRIENTS, 1985

When NASA needed to find a way for astronauts to eat on long-duration, deep space missions, it cultivated nutrient-enriched algae containing docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA), which are polyunsaturated fatty acids. The idea was for astronauts to grow their own food. Because these nutrients are also found in breast milk and delivered in utero to developing babies—DHA and ARA are key to visual and cognitive development—another, more terrestrial use was soon found. And while astronauts have yet to need it, babies have been eating it up.

6. ROADWAY SAFETY GROOVES, 1985

The goal was to help reduce hydroplaning on NASA runways. By carving slim grooves in the pavement, water would run off, allowing the Space Shuttle and other winged craft to land in the rain. The grooves came to the first commercial runway in 1967 (Dulles, in Washington D.C.) and eventually made their way to highway curves, saving countless terrestrial lives over the years. A test study of 14 before-and-after grooving sites in California found an 85 percent decrease in highway accidents during rainy weather [PDF].

7. INVISIBLE BRACES, 1989

These tooth straighteners owe their superpower to translucent polycrystalline alumina, which is a super-strong, super-invisible ceramic. It was first developed for heat seeking missile technology. NASA helped apply it to smile technology.

8. SCRATCH-RESISTANT LENSES, 1983

They're hard to scuff up thanks to NASA research into water purification. A thin, plastic film was developed and applied to a certain filter in the purification process, and would turn up again in NASA research into ways to protect space suit visors. In 1983, Foster Grant licensed the technology, and glasses have never been the same since.

9. WINGLETS, 1976

These are the vertical folds at the ends of aircraft wings. They save fuel for the same reason that you folded the wingtips of paper airplanes as a kid: They help the aircraft fly farther and faster. Winglets derive from NASA research into reducing fuel costs during the 1973 oil crisis—and have reduced those costs by billions in the decades since.  

10. CARDIAC PUMPS, 1996

This technology helps keep heart patients alive while they wait for donor hearts. The idea grew out of a conversation between a NASA engineer and two heart surgeons. NASA used its experience simulating fluid flow through rocket engines to develop the technology for flowing blood through the human body.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
France Hires Two Cats to Get Rid of Rats in Government Offices
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The French government just hired two new employees, but instead of making policy decisions, the civil servants will be responsible for keeping offices rat-free. As The Telegraph reports, the cats are the first official mousers to France.

The secretary to the prime minister, Christophe Castaner, brought in the cats after he saw that the mouse problem at the offices near the Elysee Palace was getting out of hand. They're named Nomi and Noé after the early duke of Brittany Nominoé.

Paris is home to about 4 million rats—nearly two for every citizen—and the capital's offices are just as vulnerable to infestation as other old buildings. Until now, government employees had been setting out traps to solve the vermin problem. With Nomi and Noé now living on site, the hope is that the pets will double as pest control.

The new hires aren't unprecedented: The British government employs over 100,000 cats to chase down rodents. Official mouser may sound like a cushy job, but the UK holds its felines to a high standard. Larry, the official Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office to two prime ministers, was nearly fired in 2012 for failing to react to a mouse in plain sight.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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