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.

All images: iStock

BioLite Has Designed a Headlamp That Won't Irritate or Slip Off Your Head

BioLite
BioLite

Headlamps are convenient in theory. Instead of fumbling with a flashlight or your phone in the dark, you can strap one to your head and walk your dog, do some late-night grilling, or venture around your campsite hands-free.

But in reality, the awkward design—with a bulky light that digs into your skin and slides down your forehead—cancels out much of the product's appeal. Luckily, it doesn't have to be this way, as the folks at BioLite have demonstrated with their reinvented headlamp.

The BioLite HeadLamp 330, which debuted on Kickstarter in 2018 and is now available on Amazon, promises to make you forget you're even wearing it. Inspired by modern wearables, BioLite has retooled various elements of the clunky traditional design to make it as comfortable as it is functional.

A man wearing a red HeadLamp 330
BioLite

The ultra-thin light sits flat against your skull, which means you won't have any painful marks in the middle of your forehead when you take it off. The band itself is made from a moisture-wicking fabric that feels good on your skin, even when you're working up a sweat. And unlike conventional headlamps, BioLite has redistributed the power source to the back of the head in its design, balancing the weight and taking care of any slippage issues.

As is the case with other BioLite products, technology is an essential part of the design. The 330-lumen lamp projects light up to nearly 250 feet in front of you. There are variable lighting settings, too: You can opt for either a white spot or floodlight, both with dimming options, or a strobe light feature; there's also a red floodlight. It can run for three and a half hours at maximum brightness or 40 hours at minimum brightness, and when it needs to be recharged, you can just plug it into a micro-USB source like a solar panel or powerbank.

Get your own BioLite Headlamp for $49 on Amazon. It's available in in ember red, ocean teal, sunrise yellow, or midnight gray.

Teal headlamp.
BioLite

Bioengineering Student Is Building Custom Prosthetic Arms From LEGO Bricks

iStock.com/serts
iStock.com/serts

The custom LEGO designs built by 19-year-old David Aguilar aren't meant to sit on a shelf. For years he's been ignoring the instructions that come with LEGO sets to make functioning prosthetic arms for himself, and now he's sharing his creations online, Reuters reports.

Aguilar—who lives in Andorra, a small principality on the French-Spanish border—was born with a rare genetic condition that left him without a right forearm. He built his first artificial limb out of LEGO bricks at age 9, and hasn't looked back. Today Aguilar is pursuing an eduction in bioengineering at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya in Spain, and he's already on LEGO prosthetic No. 4.

After acquiring complex LEGO sets for things like airplanes and construction vehicles, Aguilar reconfigures them into arms and adds electric motors that allow him to move his fingers and bend his elbow. He documents his building process on YouTube under the name Hand Solo. Each arm he builds is named MK followed by the model number (MK I, MK II, etc.), a nod to the MK suits built by Tony Stark in the Iron Man series.

The LEGO prosthetics are more than conversation starters—they're also affordable compared to professionally made robotic limbs on the market. Aguilar tells Reuters his dream is to one day provide cheaper options to prosthetics-wearers like him.

[h/t Reuters]

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