The space race led to the creation of many outstanding inventions, which have not only benefited the aerospace industry, but also computer technology, industrial productivity, transportation and consumer technologies. According to Melissa Albeck, CEO of online materials database Matmatch, it was NASA’s determination to solve out-of-this-world problems that led to the creation of many things we take for granted.
Across NASA’s 60-year history, one in every 1,000 patents granted in the U.S. is believed to have been filed by someone working on one for the organization’s projects. With so many prolific problem solvers, it was inevitable that some of these inventions would make their way into the mainstream and be used in everyday applications.
NASA spinoff technologies are commercial products and services that have been developed with support from NASA, through research and development contracts, licensing patents, use of NASA facilities or even data from research. The NASA Technology Transfer Program has connected the space agency’s resources to private industry for more than 50 years, leading to the creation of a number of every-day materials. Some examples follow.
Memory foam— In 1966, scientist Charles Yost and Chiharu Kubokawa invented ‘temper foam,’ a temperature-sensitive memory foam that aimed to improve the safety of aircraft cushions. Created by feeding gas into a polymer matrix, the foam has an open-cell solid structure that slowly returns to its original shape once pressure has been released.
In 1967, Yost in collaboration with NASA, established Dynamic Systems Inc to commercialize the foam. Since then, memory foam has been used for a multitude of applications; from shoe insoles and mattress pads to helmet lining and prosthetic limbs.
Anti-corrosion coating— One of the most destructive forces in engineering is the corrosive effect of saltwater. This natural process converts a refined metal to a chemically-stable form, such as oxide, hydroxide or sulphide and is particularly prevalent in marine and coastal built environment applications.
In the 1970’s, NASA researchers discovered that by coating equipment with a protective layer containing zinc dust and potassium silicate they could prevent the corrosion process.
Inorganic Coatings Inc. took this concept one step further in the 1970s, when it produced IC 531 zinc silicate, a non-toxic, water-based coating that bonds with steel to create a ceramic-like finish that prevents corrosion.
Scratch-resistant lenses— There was a time when eyeglasses were made of glass, but in 1972 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that all lenses should be shatter-resistant, which in turn led to the introduction of plastic lenses.
While plastic is more durable than glass, it is much easier to scratch. However, a discovery by NASA scientist Ted Wydeven, would change this. While developing a water purification system for a spacecraft, he coated a filter with a thin, plastic film. The surprisingly tough film formed the basis for an abrasion-resistant coating for space helmet visors. The concept was commercialized in 1983 by Foster-Grant to make scratch-resistant sunglasses.
From healthcare and the environment, to education and technology, there are materials and innovation challenges that can draw inspiration from grand engineering, such as the space race. To tackle these issues, cross-sector collaboration, particularly between the public sector and private sector organizations such NASA, will be imperative.
While businesses may be reluctant to share their findings about material applications, resources such as Matmatch’s online materials database can easily supply all the information an engineer might need, from tensile strength to heat dissipation. As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, manufacturing can learn from the attitudes of NASA scientists and their willingness to share knowledge.