Space-related research and development is incredibly expensive, and in countries that have space programs the public often ask questions about the need to fund space-related research. This is in spite of the fact that funding organizations such as NASA don’t cost more than a fraction of, for example, military spending.
And yet, space research and development has given us some amazing inventions. Whittling them down to a list of just 10 is far from easy, and there are plenty of other inventions that also come, in part, from space research, but are just not so obviously related. In this article I want to show off some of the inventions that space gave us, especially the ones I think have had the greatest impact on our daily lives.
1. The Insulin Pump
Type I diabetes is no joke, and people who are unlucky enough to have to live with this condition are always walking a thin line between life and death. Since their bodies are not making the insulin they need to regulate their blood sugar level, they need to inject themselves with insulin. However, the metabolic processes that happen when you eat or do anything else all effect that blood sugar level and are complex. Get the insulin dose wrong and you could end up dead. It’s that serious. Thankfully diabetics now have devices called insulin pumps that can monitor blood sugar and inject insulin automatically when needed. You can thank the scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center for inventing the device.
2. Prosthetic Limbs
A modern robotic prosthesis is made possible through scientific and engineering contributions from a wide range of disciplines and fields. NASA has played a huge part in the materials science that make these limbs practical, light, and comfortable. The shock-absorbing and padding materials found in cutting edge limbs are all space-age technology. NASA has also worked on artificial muscles that may soon be incorporated in actual artificial limbs.
3. Modern Tires
Many people think that the engine is the most important performance component in a car, but actually the tires are the most important, since their job is to transfer power to the road. They are also the most important safety component, dictating how quickly you can stop without losing grip. Believe it or not, there’s a chance that the tires on your car make use of a material that was developed for NASA. Goodyear was contracted by NASA to create a material for the parachute shrouds used when landing probes on Mars back in 1976. The material was fibrous and flexible, but stronger than steel, which made it perfect to use in tires.
4. Cochlear Implants
Cochlear implants are revolutionary medical devices that directly stimulate the auditory nerves in people with certain kinds of deafness – specifically, deafness stemming from damage to some part of the outer ear. If the auditory nerve and brain sections related to hearing are still intact, the cochlear implant can restore some measure of hearing. The work was done by a NASA engineer by the name of Adam Kissiah. He used NASA’s knowledge in the field of telemetry and sensing to create a technology which has changed the lives of millions of people.
5. NASA’s Efficient and Practical Solar Cells
Solar energy is available in abundance in many parts of the world but, unlike plants, our ability to convert solar energy to power has never been particularly efficient. To get usable levels of power for an average home would require far too many panels. A lot of NASA technology relies on solar power as well, so NASA has had many reasons to sink time and money into solar panel research. When they set themselves the goal of building a drone that could fly for days on end in the upper atmosphere, it led to the discovery of single-crystal silicon solar panels. These generate almost half again as much power, compared to older solar cell technology, and they are relatively affordable.
6. Memory Foam
Memory foam is an awesome substance that I personally use every day when I go to sleep. This amazingly comfortable material is good for much more than just being a great pillow, however. Memory foam was developed by NASA in the 60s as something to make aircraft cushions safer. What makes memory foam so amazing is that it provides equal pressure to the pressure it receives, but will mold itself to your body. Then, when you take the pressure off it will go back to its original shape. Memory foam has proven indispensable in the medical field for the reduction or prevention of bedsores that happen when patients are immobile for long periods of time.
7. Better Water Filters
Clean and safe drinking water is an absolute requirement to maintain a functional and civil modern society, but cleaning up water before it reaches your citizens is expensive and complex. Astronauts need clean water too, but they don’t have the luxury of big and complex water treatment plants. In order to solve this issue back in the 70s, NASA researchers set out to create water filters that could ensure their spacebound personnel had something to quench their thirst.
What they came up with are compact filter cartridges that use iodine to clean up water. This technology is known as the “microbial check valve” and is being used on a larger scale at municipal water treatment plants. NASA hasn’t stopped there either; they are pushing ahead with technology that can process human waste back into safe drinking water too!
Space is cold; like REALLY cold. So how do you stop your astronauts from turning into expensive, highly-educated, and very dead Popsicles? The answer is, of course, space-age insulation, and that has spun off into many uses. While NASA did not directly create the insulation that we use in places such as our homes and in buildings, the material used in those applications have taken their inspiration from various innovations in space-age insulation. This improvement in the efficiency of insulation has lead to significant savings in energy – buildings do not need to be heated or cooled as much, since they can maintain their temperatures longer.
One of the coolest insulation-related inventions from NASA is “Insuladd”. It’s a paint additive consisting of tiny hollow ceramic tubes. By mixing it into paint you turn the paint into an insulator. Now, that’s pure genius.
The demands that space puts on materials is never to be underestimated. The matter used to construct spacecraft and space equipment needs to fulfill a long list of requirements. It needs to be as light as possible while also being very strong. It needs to be precision-machinable to a much higher degree than even the most expensive luxury cars. Corrosion is a big no-no, and substances have to last a long time under harsh conditions.
NASA has done a lot in the materials science field, but one of their most impressive materials is Liquidmetal. This material cools quickly and is similar to plastic in many ways, yet at the same time it’s twice as strong as that space-age darling metal, titanium. This metal is special because it can be molded like plastic, thanks to a liquid atomic structure. With a material like this you can imagine the many possibilities that may open up, for everything from sports equipment to cars.
10. Anti-Scratch Coating
I, like many people, have to wear glasses all the time or I’m blind as a bat. Spectacles are actually expensive and sophisticated technological objects. So it totally sucked that glass lenses would scratch up like it was nobody’s business.
For years now you could (and should) opt for plastic lenses with an anti-scratch coating. That coating was originally developed to protect the visors of astronauts as they mess about in space. Thanks to that, we can all now be much less worried about scratching our glasses and far more worried about simply losing them.
The Basic vs the Applied
Space programs are valuable in many more ways than simply putting people in space. For one thing, research on other planets, or from space looking back down on Earth, provides us with invaluable knowledge when it comes to our planet’s present and future. Climate science, geology, and meteorology all rely on space science to be effective.
Apart from that, space programs are one of the few places you’ll still find “pure” or “basic” research. Most research is generally aimed at solving a particular problem, usually one with a commercial application. This is referred to as “applied” research. Getting money to do this sort of research is not hard because you can clearly show investors what they’ll get if the research works. Basic research, on the other hand, tends to simply want to answer questions for which there is no clear application – at least not at that time. Invariably, basic research breakthroughs do get applications eventually, but getting people to gamble on it is hard.
As this list clearly shows however, losing the such a rich source of basic research would make us all the poorer for it, so think about that the next time there’s a debate about defunding a space program.