5 consumer innovations that came from the Space Shuttle program

Consumer Reports News: July 08, 2011 04:20 PM

Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off successfully at 11:29 AM (Eastern) today—NASA's last venture after three decades with the reusable space-planes. But as the storied—and controversial—shuttle program comes to an end, we thought we'd review how the space shuttles' development and use for space flights have contributed to your everyday life.

According to NASA's Technology Utilization Program, a division created in 1962 to spur commercialization and use of space-based technology, over 100 consumer products and innovations can be traced back to having some ties to the 30-year operation of the Space Shuttle Program. Here are five of them.

Better, smaller digital cameras
Kodak built the first digital camera in 1975, but NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers developed the concept in the late 1960s. And in the 1990s, NASA scientists created more sensitive CMOS chips for improved low-light, deep-space photography. The commercial spin-off: Nearly one-third of all cell phone cameras and many webcams now use that NASA-developed CMOS technology. NASA-grown software code to improve digital image stabilization of shuttle launch videos is also now being used by the forensics departments of many law enforcement agencies, says NASA.

Flexible, insulating aerogels
This insulating material—composed of mostly nanoscopic air pockets—was invented more than 80 years ago in the U.S. But NASA's scientists refined aerogels to make them flexible and sturdy enough to insulate the shuttle's extremely cold liquid-fueling systems. Such developments lead to commercial aerogels for home insulation and clothing—shock-absorbing shoe inserts, for example. (See out latest Ratings of gel shoe insoles, available to subscribers, for the best performers.)

Environmentally friendly lubricants
NASA had to develop new types of lubricants that could stand the heat and pressures generated by the motors on the "crawler," which moves the shuttle to the launch pad. Derivatives of those oils, which are also biodegradable, are available to consumers now. (Read about the costly problem of The black death of sludge in car engines.)

Medical LED lights
Solid-state light-emitting diodes—LEDs—are slowly gaining ground among consumers seeking energy-efficient home lighting. But NASA has been using LED bulbs for growing plants on the ISS and space-shuttle missions for years. What's more, the agency has also been researching how the light can be used for medical applications, including killing cancerous brain tumors and pain management.

Online dating
Yup, that's right. The same "artificially intelligent" computer software that NASA developed in 1997 to control the shuttles' rocket engines has been used in an online dating service since 2000. (Who knew it'd take a rocket scientist to find your soul mate?)

The space shuttle program accounts for only a small portion of the beneficial discoveries made by NASA's scientists and astronauts. Check out NASA TUP's Spinoff, a free annual publication (available at its website) that highlights how specific space-related research has made its way into consumer products and innovations. And contrary to popular belief, NASA had nothing to do with the invention of Tang, Teflon, Velcro, cordless power tools, or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

50 Years of NASA-Derived Technologies (1958-2008) [Discovery Center of Idaho]
10 NASA Inventions You Might Use Every Day [Discovery.com]
NASA Spinoff website [NASA]
Space Shuttle Spinoffs (PDF) [NASA]
NASA’s Space Shuttle: Perspectives on Technology Transfer (PDF) [NASA]

Paul Eng

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