Ten Tech Innovations From NASA’s Space Shuttle That Trickled Down to Non-Astronauts

Tech designed for the space shuttle program have permeated just about every aspect of our lives. Here are ten you may not know about

Your life is full of what NASA calls “spinoffs”: ideas or products initially designed for NASA’s particular (and particularly challenging) uses, but which trickled down to become commercial products. Of course, you may not recognize these items–there’s no “made for NASA” sticker, and many of the iconic NASA products (Tang, Teflon, Velcro) weren’t actually designed for or by NASA at all. But NASA-developed stuff is everywhere, from insulation to infant formula, from prostheses to fishing nets. Here are ten of our favorites that originated in the Shuttle program–the very program that just saw its last launch ever.

Click here to see 10 ways Shuttle tech can be found right here on Earth.

Baby Formula with Dietary Supplement

Daniel Lockney, who works with the NASA Technology Transfer Program, has a favorite spinoff from the Shuttle program: infant formula. “One of the most unusual and ubiquitous NASA spinoffs is a nutritional supplement found in 95 percent of the baby food sold in the US. It’s an algae-based supplement containing nutrients previously only known to exist in breast milk. It’s believed to be very important in the development of the fatty tissues in the eyes and brain. You just don’t expect to find NASA in your baby food. But it’s there. It’s everywhere.”

Goodyear Tires

Goodyear has partnered with NASA a few times, most recently on a spring-loaded tire that needs no inflation. Ideas from those creations often trickle down to the tires available to regular, non-astronaut folks, including a radial tire that boasts a tread life about 10,000 miles greater than regular radial tires, thanks to a “fibrous material” developed for NASA.

Artificial Heart Pump

Dr. Michael DeBakey, who sadly passed away in 2008 at the impressive age of 99, collaborated with NASA on a tiny pump for the space shuttle’s fuel pump system. At only one inch in diameter and weighing less than four ounces, the pump has only one moving part and no shaft seals at all. That made it ideal for the difficult conditions of space, but it also made it perfect for the human body. As a heart pump, DeBakey’s creation provides five liters of blood flow per minute but uses under 10 Watts of energy, and its tiny size makes it an ideal fit for children with chest cavities too small for other solutions. So far, it has saved over 200 lives–with more to come.

Extra-Strength Fishing Net

We don’t want to imply that we’re in favor of net-based fishing, or tuna fishing in general–many species of tuna being on the verge of extinction due to overfishing and all–but we’d be remiss to overlook the Hyperester net (not pictured; that’s just an ordinary everyday fishing net), which is now used for tuna fishing but was originally designed for the space shuttle project. NASA asked a company called West Coast Netting to create a safety net for the folks working on the shuttle orbiter–but with a few unusual requirements. It had to be small, but with, as NASA says, “extraordinary tensile strength,” resistant to both fire and ultraviolet light. The company found the right material, but had to invent a new twisting process for the twine to increase the net’s strength. In tuna fishery, the net sinks faster to catch deeper fish, and its strength and resistance to shrinkage makes it an ideal net for fishermen.

Rescue Equipment for Accident Victims

The next time you get in a horrific car crash and have to be cut out of it, you can add NASA to the list of things to thank for making it out alive. Rescue squads often use a particular hand-held cutter to get victims out of wrecks, and as it turns out, that cutter is essentially a miniature version of the one used to, as NASA says, “separate the shuttle from the solid rocket boosters after launch.” It’s ideal for rescue situations because as it uses controlled explosive charges rather than spinning blades, it needs no auxiliary power or “cumbersome hoses,” and it’s actually 70% cheaper than competing equipment.

Video Stabilization Software

Filming a shuttle launch isn’t just for our enjoyment; NASA needs to have reliable film to analyze, to understand when things go wrong and to improve the launch every time. But it’s not easy to film a massive rocket, so NASA developed an in-house image processing and video stabilization software to “remove defects due to image jitter, rotation, and zoom.” That software is a bit intensive to be used on a MacBook, but was of great help to the FBI when agents were attempting to analyze video of the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Known as VISAR (Video Image Stabilization and Registration), the software was able to make grainy, blurry, shaky nighttime images appear as if they were expertly filmed during the day.

Biodegradable Commercial Lubricants

The space shuttle’s platform, used to move the shuttle back and forth, weighs about eight million pounds–without the shuttle itself. Wheeling it three miles to the launch pad is no easy task, and needs some very serious lubricant. Plus, as the Kennedy Space Center is located in a wildlife refuge, the lubricant has to be biodegradable and wildlife-friendly. NASA contracted Sun Coast Chemicals to create the ideal lubricant, which eventually became known as the X-1R Crawler Track Lube. That lubricant has been used in all kinds of things since then: a spray lube for general use (rust prevention, lubricating corroded bolts, joints, and hinges), a fishing rod and reel lube, and an engine treatment for a variety of vehicles. The X-1R lubes have an oxidation life of 10,000 hours and won’t harm the environment.

Amazing Insulation for Homeowners and NASCAR Drivers

In the vacuum of space, insulation is key to keeping NASA astronauts alive. In the comparatively mildly inconvenient weather here on Earth, we’ve often gotten to use that incredible insulation technology to keep us at our preferred temperature. Aerogel, the ridiculously light, mostly-air material used on the space shuttle, is far more efficient than regular fiberglass home insulation. Then there’s the material designed to keep heat, mostly from the crazy shuttle engines, out. NASCAR drivers have used the same thermal protection given to NASA astronauts.

Image Processing for Firefighters

What’s good for one fire is good for another, right? NASA’s super-sensitive, handheld infrared camera was originally used to examine the plumes shot off by shuttles. Able to analyze the fires for hot spots, the camera proved very useful for rocket technology–but just as useful for firefighters, who use it to locate hot spots in wildfires. That could come in handy these days.

Possible Solutions for Osteoporosis Patients

Osteoporosis, the most common bone disease, causes a loss of bone mass, which makes bones fragile, brittle, and more susceptible to breaks and fractures. It’s often associated with old age (especially in women) here on Earth, but in zero gravity, it affects everyone. Astronauts lose calcium from bones in space, as the body sees no need to keep bones in tip-top shape when they’re not supporting the body’s weight. It’s not osteoporosis, but it has the same effect. Astronauts have been working out with harness and strap-type exercises since the Apollo days, but that doesn’t treat the actual loss of bone mass. NASA has created several ways to both detect and treat the bone problem, including new kinds of 3-D tomography scans (which analyze the bone’s microarchitecture) and a curious vibrating plate. Yeah, you read that right: NASA scientists think that a certain kind of electrotherapy that requires the astronaut (or regular person) to stand on a “lightly vibrating plate for 10 to 20 minutes each day” while held down with elastic straps could have a beneficial effect on bone loss. Testing is still underway, but is very promising in experiments with lab animals (seen here).