Everyone knows that NASA gave the world Tang. But, did you know that space research has driven huge swathes of our technological development for decades? The results range from the mundane, like the invention of the ballpoint pen, to the indispensable, like the miniaturization of the computer. Space presents an extraordinarily challenging environment that demands only the best innovation. Every year, NASA releases a publication called Spinoff, which highlights how space technology has contributed to our everyday lives. The 2013 edition is finally out, so let's take a look at what your neighborhood rocket scientist has done for you lately...
A comfier car ride
Ever been on a long road trip and felt a little saddle sore? It could be because your car's seats aren't supporting your body evenly. This leads to pressure points that can cause back aches and stiffness. No one spends more time strapped into seats than astronauts, so ergonomic seat design has long been a NASA priority. That innovation is now trickling down to the rest of us, as car maker Nissan has begun using NASA's neutral body posture research to design more supportive seats for their line of automobiles. That sure sounds nice to me!
Cleaner air for those in desperate need
Trapped inside a tiny enclosed space, people need air before they need virtually anything else. That air needs to be free of deadly carbon dioxide and scrubbed clean of toxic particles. To aid longer space voyages, NASA contracted with Paragon Space Development Corporation to develop an integrated unit for providing clean air. The resulting machine cleans, circulates, and heats air for astronauts to breathe. It can even restore an atmosphere in the event of a fire on board.
Astronauts aren't the only people who might find themselves in such a situation. In fact, every year more miners are trapped in mine collapses than there are astronauts travelling in space. When a collapse occurs, miners often have mere minutes to setup their emergency equipment in near-total darkness. With this new air processor integrated into state-of-the-art survival shelters, breathable air is now one less thing they have to worry about.
A sip of clean water, wherever you are
Air isn't the only scare resource in space. Astronauts also need water: to drink, to re-hydrate their food, to bathe. But, unlike air, water takes up a lot of space. The good news is, we can reclaim much of the water we use in day-to-day activities. The International Space Station includes a groundbreaking water reclamation facility that can turn urine into clean, drinkable water. To ensure complete safety, the unit must filter and sterilize waste water to exacting standards.
Astronauts aren't the only ones who need clean water to drink. Sadly, much of the world's population lives under threat of unclean or insufficient water supplies. While an ISS-style converter costs tens of millions of dollars, some pieces of that equipment are a whole lot cheaper. Water bottle manufacturer ÖKO has taken some of NASA's filtration technology and added it to their products. Traditional water bottle filters use layers of carbon to trap harmful substances, but aren't so effective against living organisms like bacteria. The addition of a second filter, based on technology from the ISS, allows these new bottles to protect drinkers against harmful critters like E. Coli. So, next time you need a sip of water, just fill up at the nearest creek or lake!
The list goes on...
These are just a few of the scores of technologies NASA highlights in this year's report. To see the full list, you can click here. My intention here is not to highlight these particular corporations and their new products. Rather, I think that these public-private partnerships illuminate the vital importance of basic and applied research at the government level. We may have spent more than $100 billion to build the ISS, but we haven't received nothing in return. That money has spurred the development of countless new ideas and inspired both the current and next generations of scientists, engineers, and businessmen to make life here on Earth a richer and safer experience.