Nasa is everywhere.
Over the past 50 years, the US government space agency has built an awful lot of stuff for, well, space. But with its $17 billion (£10 billion) annual budget, it has also done quite a bit of research and development in other areas, and even its space gear managed to influence so many other things down here on earth.
The liquid cooled space clothing worn by lunar astronauts in the ’70s has been adapted to help burn-victims. In the ’80s, the agency helped develop a lightweight breathing system for firefighters. And more recently, biologists modified the star-tracking algorithms used by the Hubble Telescope to track fish and polar bears. “The list goes on and on, but not many people know about it,” says Daniel Lockney, Technology Transfer Program Executive with Nasa’s Office of the Chief Technologist.
Lockney is the guy you go to if you want access to Nasa’s space-aged technologies. This week, he and his colleagues released a catalog of about 1,000 Nasa software projects, trying to make it easier for the agency’s research to trickle down to the rest of us. And in the near future, he plans on launching an online software database and repository that will grease the wheels even more.
He’s proud of the work he and his colleagues do, and he loves to talk about Nasa’s long history. When people learn what Lockney does, they often tell him about their favorite Nasa inventions. That can be fun. But sometimes, it’s also a bit of an odd experience. People often name things that weren’t actually invented at Nasa. “It happens all the time,” Lockney says.
So, the list below provides a kind of quiz. There are eight technologies, four of them came out of Nasa’s tech transfer program. And four did not. Can you tell the myths from the Nasa miracles?
OK, maybe this isn’t exactly a Miracle, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. Back in the 1990s, NASA teamed up with a company called International Flavors and Fragrances to grow a rose in space. The scent of that rose was synthesized and then bottled in a “out-of-this-world” perfume called Zen. Answer: Miracle
Yes, NASA has used Velcro in its missions. No, they didn’t invent it. A swiss engineer named George de Mestral came up with it in the late 1940s. Answer: Myth
NASA once gave a contract to Marietta Laboratories to experiment with microalgae as a kind of three-in-one food source, oxygen engine, and an organic waste disposal toolkit. The space food work didn’t pan out, but Marietta would give us the technology to make nutritional supplements for infant formula. Answer: NASA Miracle
Tang’s NASA link dates back to John Glenn’s 1962 Friendship 7 mission. The storied astronaut did drink Tang in space, but it was invented for consumers, not the space program. Answer: Myth
It all started when Edwin Saltzman was riding his bike. Whenever big trucks passed, he’d get hit with a mighty wallop of air. Since he worked at NASA, which has made a study of wind resistance on aircraft, it was pretty easy to design a more aerodynamic truck. And by the late ’70s his designs were everywhere. Answer: Miracle
Lockney says that he gets this one all the time. NASA uses Teflon in heat shields, in space suits, and even in cargo holds. But Teflon was invented in 1938. That’s long before NASA was around. Answer: Myth
In the 1960s, an inventor named Paul Fisher came up with a remarkable pen that would work in zero-gravity. NASA used them in the Apollo 7 mission. The pen was a success, but when Fisher came up with it, he wasn’t working for NASA. Answer: NASA Myth
In the 1990’s, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory team was looking for ways to shrink cameras down for interplanetary travel. They came up with the camera-on-a-chip, also known as the CMOS sensor. Today, CMOS sensors are found in most of the world’s camera phones. Answer: NASA Miracle