30 Surprising Ways NASA Changed Everyday Life

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: PIRO4D/Pixabay

NASA did some major celebrating in 2019, and for good reason. Reaching the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon is a fantastic excuse to throw a bit of a party. However, the moon landing certainly isn't the only major accomplishment that NASA has under its belt, even though it's probably the most famous. Our lives have been majorly impacted by NASA — through the discoveries it’s made and the technologies it’s given us — in more ways than we may realize.

Fire-resistant Reinforcement

Technology to increase fire safety is important; it's even more important when you're building a spaceship. NASA took its job pretty seriously on that front. When the Apollo missions were being prepared, NASA partnered with a company to develop a heat shield for the ship's reentry.

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Photo Courtesy: PIRO4D / Pixabay

The technology for the heat shields (which involves the shield material burning and dissipating energy) also had everyday applications. Fire-resistant paints and foams are used in aircraft. Steel shield coatings in buildings make skyscrapers safer by expanding to provide better insulation. This tech can slow the time it takes for a building to collapse and give people more time to escape.

Camera Phones

Taking pictures with our phones has become as natural as breathing. When we're with our friends, when we see a beautiful sunset or even when we see a cute cat, we can snap a quick picture and remember the moment forever. But camera phones weren't always around; NASA technology is what led to them.

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Photo Courtesy: Free-Photos/Pixabay

In the '90s, scientists worked to create a high-quality camera that was small enough to fit on a spacecraft. That technology is what led to the ability to have cameras on our phones. Next time you take a quick picture, thank the scientists at NASA.

Foil Blankets

Humans don't do well with temperature extremes. Sometimes, due to an accident or because they just weren't prepared, people have to endure them. In cases of extreme temperature, whether in the mountains or post-rescue from a dangerous situation, the human body needs to stay warm in order to prevent conditions like shock or hypothermia.

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Emergency response teams use foil blankets to keep people warm or to get their body temperatures up. These blankets were originally developed for use by NASA — for astronauts and for various pieces of equipment.

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Scratch-Resistant Lenses

If you wear glasses, you know it can be difficult to keep the lenses clean and unbroken. Even more important than keeping them clean, though, is making sure they don't get scratched. Thanks to NASA, keeping eyeglasses scratch-free is a lot easier than it used to be.

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Photo Courtesy: Pexels/Pixabay

To protect equipment from particles in the space environment, NASA developed a special scratch-resistant plastic coating — and now we use it on glasses and sunglasses. Not only is the material scratch-resistant, but it's also cheaper and better at absorbing ultraviolet rays, so it's more effective as a material in sunglasses.

Solar Power

As we search for more renewable sources of energy to help make Earth a little healthier, we often land on solar power as a pretty reliable source. But the technology for this energy source doesn't come from any Earth-bound company. Fittingly, the technology to harness the power of the sun comes from NASA’s space-exploration experts.

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NASA perfected solar panels while designing an unmanned aircraft so that the craft wouldn't get weighed down by heavy engines and other power sources. Thanks to those developments, we now have access to solar panels on our homes, giving us great sources of energy.

Pollution Remediation

There's a fair amount of pollution in the world, and it impacts everyone’s daily lives. As we try to come up with solutions for fixing this problem (and doing better about pollution in the future) NASA has already come up with at least one piece of technology to help the international pollution problem: the Petroleum Remediation Product.

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Microcapsules (tiny, hollow balls of beeswax) help clean petroleum-based pollutants from water by preventing chemical compounds from crude oils from settling. This can reduce the damage done to ocean beds when an oil spill happens.

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Freeze Drying

Freeze-dried foods and ingredients are pretty common nowadays. We can buy them in stores, and we can prepare them ourselves at home during emergencies. The technology for them, however, hasn't always been so readily available. The Apollo Missions were a major turning point for NASA, and preparing for them was quite an undertaking.

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During preparations for the missions, NASA teamed up with companies to formulate a solution for getting enough food to the astronauts on the ship without it taking up enormous amounts of space and weight. Their solution was freeze-drying, and thus began the history of freeze-dried food.

Land Mine Removal

When you think about the process of removing old land mines, you might not associate it with NASA. But the two seemingly unrelated projects have one very important link. A demining device uses surplus rocket fuel (supplied by NASA) to remotely ignite and neutralize land mines without detonating them.

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The fuel burns a hole through the casing of the mine and burns away the electric components, allowing the mine to be safely disarmed. In addition to helping safely remove land mines, this agreement also helps NASA get rid of surplus fuel without negatively impacting the environment.

Long-distance Telecommunications

In this day and age when our phones play an almost-hourly part of our lives, it's easy to forget that this technology is actually fairly recent. We rely on it, and the ability to communicate plays an enormous role in the relationships we're able to cultivate, the businesses we're able to reach and our ability to research other parts of the globe (and space).

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We have NASA to thank for developing this tech and making these communications possible via satellites. Using the satellites orbiting the earth on a daily basis, we can use GPS technology in our everyday lives.

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Smoke Detector

Fire safety seems like it would be a priority for inventors and scientists, but it took a space mission for scientists to create an updated device that alerts people to the presence of smoke. While NASA was designing safety equipment for Skylab, the first U.S. space station, it was concerned about fire safety in the station.

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In response, NASA developed an adjustable smoke detector so astronauts would be alerted if toxic gasses or smoke were present in the air. Fire safety experts back on Earth quickly borrowed this technology. Now, our homes are a lot safer because of it.

Computer Mouse

In today's world, computers are almost extensions of our own arms. With modern technology, inventors and computer engineers have made them as easy to operate as possible. That wasn't always the case, though. In fact, up until the 1960s, computers didn't even have mice.

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In the ‘60s, a NASA scientist was trying to find ways to make computers easier to operate. After a few suggestions regarding how to manipulate data that had been input into the computer, the idea for the mouse was born.

The Joystick

The joystick might seem like a fairly straightforward piece of machinery, but it plays a very important role in a variety of historical timelines. Original gaming systems like Nintendo and Atari started off with a single controller, and even on modern controllers (like the Nintendo Switch system), joysticks are still part of the gaming experience.

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The original joystick, however, was not meant to move around a man in a little red hat and overalls. NASA used the original joysticks to navigate rocketships — no steering wheels for astronauts moving through space.

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Shoe Insoles

This seemingly basic technology had a much grander beginning than you might think. The technology behind shoe insoles actually began with a lunar problem. When NASA was preparing to send astronauts to the moon, it needed to develop a material for the astronauts' boots that gave them spring in their step while also providing ventilation.

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The result was a three-dimensional polyurethane foam fabric that eventually became shoe insoles. The material reduces the impact on our legs when we're walking and running. Next time you go for a run, remember you're using the same technology that helped astronauts walk on the moon.

Firefighting Equipment

Of all the professions in which equipment is key, firefighting is pretty important. When firefighters arrive on the scene, they need to be able to trust that their equipment is going to work well — and at peak efficiency — so they can do their jobs.

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Using an aluminum composite material that NASA applied on its rocket casings, firefighting equipment (such as a breathing system with a mask, air canister, frame and harness) has been built to help people fight fires more safely. Short-range two-way radios are also used based on inductor-less electronic circuit technology NASA developed.

Memory Foam Mattresses

We're always looking for the perfect mattress to help send us to sleep, and each person wants something different. Memory foam seems to be a fairly agreed-upon solution that's comfortable for just about everyone who uses it. But the material itself wasn't actually created for sleeping; it had a very different start.

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NASA needed a material to use in aircraft seats that would reduce impact during landing, so scientists developed the open-cell polyurethane-silicon plastic that we know as memory foam. Now we can enjoy a good night's sleep, and astronauts can enjoy softer landings.

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Enriched Baby Food

Using enriched baby food is something so normal that you might never think your ability to do so is a result of space exploration. It was NASA that discovered the microalgae that's now added to common baby food to enrich its nutritional value and help with children's mental and visual development.

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In space, astronauts don’t eat it to help with their vision, however; it's a recycling agent for extended space travel. But you can rest easy knowing that the food you're giving to your baby is what NASA trusts to help keep astronauts alive in outer space.

Cordless Tools

While we may think of cordless tools and rechargeable batteries as everyday items, there was a time this wasn't the case: before the moon landing. NASA knew astronauts would need access to tools to collect soil and rock samples, but they’d need to be versatile to fit the astronauts' needs — like not being limited by the length of a cord.

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NASA teamed up with a tool company to create a cordless, battery-operated drill. Thanks to that collaboration, the development of cordless tools became more streamlined, and we have the wide variety of tools that we do today.

Artificial Limbs

Whether someone is born with a condition or had an accident, living with a missing limb can present some unique challenges. Technologies surrounding and improving prosthetic limbs aren't just a luxury to help make life better; for some people, they're a necessity. The technology for artificial limbs has NASA to thank.

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The space organization created technology around artificial muscle systems for use in robots and other space vehicles, and artificial limb technologies developed directly as a result. Tech created for exploring outer space can have a very real impact on those of us still here on Earth.

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LEDs

When you think of lights, you might not associate them with outer space — and for the most part, with good reason. Astronauts didn't invent light bulbs, after all. But NASA did play a role in the lighting industry, and it has to do with light-emitting diodes (LEDs). These were developed specifically for NASA for use in space shuttles.

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Electric currents are applied in the forward direction of the device, and a semiconductor diode emits light; this is what makes LEDs different from regular light bulbs. They're a lot more efficient, making our lighting technology much better.

Infrared Thermometers

Having an accurate temperature reading is important. Traditional mercury thermometers are all fine and good, but they're difficult to read with the degree of accuracy that medical professions demand. Thanks to NASA, there’s a solution. When NASA measures the temperature of stars, it uses infrared technology.

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That technology has been adapted into ear thermometers, which measure people’s internal temperatures by using infrared sensors to detect the energy their eardrums give off. It sounds a bit like a sci-fi novel, but it's modern technology piggybacking off of NASA's accomplishments.

Structural Analysis Software

If you've ever ridden a roller coaster or driven a car, you've probably experienced the results of something called structural analysis software. These computer programs help engineers design things like cars, roller coasters and pretty much anything with, as the name suggests, a structure that could be analyzed.

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This software wasn't created by anyone in the car or roller coaster businesses, though. Software engineers at NASA developed the program, as they've developed, quite literally, thousands of others to help with space missions.

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Invisible Braces

While many people had an unfortunate braces-wearing phase in middle school or high school, some need braces later in life (or forgot to wear their retainers and need a second round of braces). Nowadays there's an invisible alternative to all that wire; it’s made of a translucent material called polycrystalline alumina.

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Photo Courtesy: Smile Care Club/Wikimedia Commons

The material wasn't originally developed for braces, though; NASA created and used it. Infrared antennae in heat-seeking missile trackers needed protection. Polycrystalline alumina was the material NASA developed for that purpose. Now the material also realigns teeth.

Video Enhancing & Analysis Systems

Having the crispest, sharpest video quality might seem like a luxury for movie buffs who want the scenes to be as realistic as possible. Of course, there are other reasons to want cleaner video quality; some professions rely on it. The FBI, for example, needs to be able to analyze videos for extremely small details.

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NASA has actually helped in this arena. Interestingly enough its technology around analyzing and enhancing videos (without distorting the quality) has significantly helped the FBI in the organization’s investigations of video footage.

Chemical Detection

The ability to detect chemicals in the air is important in a lot of fields, especially when it comes to potential chemical weapons or warfare agents. NASA uses chemical-detection systems to check for moisture and pH levels and monitor potential corrosion on equipment in order to prevent damage to said equipment (and to the astronauts relying on that equipment).

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The sensors that NASA uses have applications in other industries, too. The Department of Defense also uses these sensors to detect potential chemical agents in the air that may indicate chemical warfare or other chemical threats.

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Improved Rescue Teams

Thanks to NASA, rescue teams have experienced an improvement that has increased their ability to do their jobs and save people more efficiently. At the request of FEMA, NASA started researching ways to find a human heartbeat — when it was buried under piles of rubble, rocks or other debris from an accident.

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Photo Courtesy: UK Department for International Development/Flickr

The device that NASA created is able to detect a human heartbeat by sending a low-level microwave signal down into the rubble. If there’s someone underneath, their heartbeat or breathing will change the ways that the signal is reflected, indicating that someone is there.

Water Filters

Water-filtration systems and general water hygiene aren’t the most straightforward processes, even though we rely on them daily. The modern water filter came into existence a lot later than many people assume it did, and we have NASA to thank for it.

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In space, astronauts need clean water, and it's not a commodity they can just pop over to the store for when they're hanging out on a space station. NASA invented a water filter using activated charcoal that has ions to neutralize pathogens in the water. Now, we use similar technology in basic water filters at home or work.

LZR Racer Suit

When people participate in high-stakes athletic competitions, the equipment they use is important. The smallest differences in equipment and clothing can give them a potential edge over the competition. One such piece of athletic equipment is the LZR Racer Suit: a high-tech swimsuit designed to create less friction and drag in the water, helping racers move faster.

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The suit was actually used by many swimmers in the 2008 Olympic Games. The fabric of the suit, woven elastane-nylon and polyurethane, as well as the design of the suit, were supported by NASA testing facilities and software.

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Ventricular Assist Device

Patients needing heart donors often have to wait for long amounts of time for a variety of reasons, such as how desperate their need is and how many heart donors there are (assuming, of course, that the donor and patient are a good match).

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In the meantime, some patients need additional help to keep their hearts going. That's where the Ventricular Assist Device comes in. NASA collaborated with a team of doctors to help develop the technology for the VAD, which attaches to a patient's heart and helps it keep pumping when the muscle is too weak to pump on its own.

Powdered Lubricants

While lubricants in liquid form may be more traditional and are probably what most of us use at home when we need to get our doors to stop squeaking, NASA needed an alternative — something for astronauts to use in space.

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NASA scientists delivered a solution: solid lubricants like PS300. Nowadays, we use these lubricants too. They’re a popular element used in a wide variety of technologies today, from turbochargers and refrigeration compressors to hybrid electrical generators.

Improved Radial Tires

Tires have been around for a while, and car-industry professionals have been working on making them better for almost as long as cars have been widely available. One surprising contributor to the tire industry, however, is NASA. When the Mars Viking Lander spacecraft was being prepared, NASA needed a material to help land the craft without too harsh of an impact.

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It teamed up with a tire company to make that happen. The fibrous material it ended up developing is about five times more durable than steel. That material is used in many of our tires today, making them a lot more durable, too.

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