You Are Probably Using NASA Technology

You often hear people — especially non-hacker types — complain that money spent on space travel would be better off spent here on Earth. Of course that ignores one big factor, that space programs have resulted in a host of spin off technologies, many of which you use every day. JPL has an infographic that covers twenty things we wouldn’t have without space travel, and while it could be said that some of these things might have been invented anyway it would doubtless have taken much longer without the necessity and the income from space programs. If you want more detail, Tech Briefs has an interesting interview on the subject of what tech spun off the Apollo program.

Some of the inventions are pretty obvious, and others are more refinements of things that already existed. We all knew NASA pioneered freeze drying for food, for instance. However, some of them are pretty surprising. For example, according to the infographic, NASA asking Black and Decker to develop a moon sample collector led to the Dust Buster.

We weren’t sure about some of the claims, as in when they seemed to be taking credit for the invention of the LED. However, on closer reading, they are claiming that special NASA-related LEDs are finding use in medical applications. We knew the story about how the computer mouse came to be, but we didn’t know there was a NASA connection.

Of course, every year about this time, we like to point out that the best spin off from space programs is kids awestruck by science and engineering. Tech Briefs is a good read even outside of the blog post on spin offs.

What’s your favorite of the NASA inventions? Let us know in the comments.

50 thoughts on “You Are Probably Using NASA Technology

  1. NASA didn’t invent jack crap. All they are is a company with a huge pocket book asking the world to make something that suits their needs. Any company can do that same thing with a huge pocket book. Our money would be far better of spend on ITER, that to know whats on other planets. Try to procure out future with things like ITER, or spend several billion on a curious questions about whats other planets made from. It’s NOT rocket science, its called common sense.

    1. Yeah! Let’s just go fucking land on those weird rock? things, they could be made of sponges for all I care.
      I’ve got two good knees and a head full o’ common sense.

      And that common sense is telling me it’s possible for the human race to work on more than one thing at a time :)

      1. The ITER costs $20 billion. The price of a new moonshot could buy two or three ITERs, or fund a completely new accelerated fusion research project that would finally put the field of fusion research on track.

        But it’s more important to play rocket man than saving humanity.

        1. I’d be quite happy for my taxes to go towards moonshots and ITERs, and everything else modern science is looking at. Some more LIGOs would be really fascinating.

        2. You say that as though leaving Earth and saving humanity are incompatible.

          And yeah I know, I went and looked at ITER before I posted. That funding is totally within grasp of many possible sources but I’m not Bezos so go evangelize where it actually matters.

          And once again, “it’s possible for the human race to work on more than one thing at a time” – Me, right above your comment

    2. id prefer funding alternate fusion (anything not tokamak based), where their entire budget wouldn’t pay for iter’s toilet seats. even if iter works its too damn expensive to replace coal fire plants.

      that old joke about fusion always being 20 years away. 20 years happens to be how long it takes to fund, build and experiment on a new tokamak only to find out you need a bigger one. and we are still about 2 tokamaks from production power plant design (that is if they aren’t being over optimistic as fusion researchers often are).

      i rather like the polywell approach. they have proven their core design features on machines that could fit in your living room and are optimizing their demo design on supercomputers using state of the art particle physics models. that way last minute design choices don’t end up costing billions.

      1. ITER is a technology testbed. It also serves as a training facility for the industry that needs to figure out things like, “How are we going to make these giant superconducting magnets that nobody has ever made before?”.

        The problem still is that there’s not enough funding, so it takes years to do anything. Doing things that slowly, the bureaucracy and the upkeep eats up 90% of the budget. If the project was better funded from the beginning, they could have actually iterated the design faster and get something out of it. Now the theoretical and technological understanding elsewhere has overtaken the project and when the ITER is complete it will be the equivalent of a supercomputer built out of 486DX2 chips.

        1. the fact that its a bureaucratic nightmare is an even bigger reason to go with the alternatives. giving a bureaucracy a large budget and they will spend that money to find ways to need more money so they can get an even bigger budget.

          1. Would project Manhatten have delivered anything if it was infested with gender politik and special snowflakes?
            Scientists getting censored for their personal views – when they come under attack from external forces telling them they are wrong – it’s going to cause problems.
            Why on earth they put Alessandro Strumia into a “workshop for gender studies” what did they expect the outcome to be?
            Was he not eomployed for the science, so WTF is he doing in a gender studies classroom?

            Sometimes you need to employ disagreeable people to get the job done. Such as German scientists.
            In today’s politically correct atomsphere that would never happen.
            In the old days you put them out of sight, let them get on with it and thought of the greater good.

            How far we have fallen.

          2. @dave, wanting equality among equals is not ‘fallen’ that is ‘risen’.
            If the scientific community of the 1940s were as equal as now the Manhatten project would have had more available staff, so yes, it would have delivered. Possibly faster.

    3. Spend ALL of it on your personal favorite project?
      Don’t think it can succeed without sucking up every penny?
      If it can’t then maybe it isn’t the solution you think it is.

      Besides, what’s the point of “saving” humanity if we give up on all our dreams?
      You anti-space Luddites would eventually have us all back sitting around the grasslands, poking termite mounds with sticks.

    1. They got that one wrong. It was a vacuum for use in the lander to suck up moon dust the astronauts tracked in, but the roughness of the granules and static attraction made the vacuum pretty useless.

    2. Wikipedia has more info on that.

      “The design originated from the Apollo space mission, where NASA required a portable, self-contained drill capable of extracting core samples from the lunar surface. Black & Decker was tasked with the job, and developed a computer program to optimize the design of the drill’s motor and ensure minimal power consumption. That computer program led to the development of a cordless miniature vacuum cleaner.[3]”

      Most of the claims for inventions or “NASA technology” boil down to NASA providing a requirement and funds for R&D. It’s not clear to me who really takes the credit in those cases.

      Douglas Engelbart is widely recognised as the inventor of the computer mouse, the wikipedia page doesn’t mention NASA once. NASA’s contribution was some research funds to SRI, where Engelbart worked.

      According to NASA:
      Englebart approached Taylor in the Office of Advanced Research and Technology at NASA Headquarters with his proposals, including ideas about how best to manipulate data on a computer screen.

      “I was very interested in his ideas,” says Taylor. “They were unique.” So Taylor granted the funding for Engelbart’s study to find the best device.”

      The headline should read “You are probably using technology funded by the government”, but that would be too socialist. The irony of course, is that a massive government funded program beat the Russians, to show that socialism can be beaten by – socialism.

      1. >Most of the claims for inventions or “NASA technology” boil down to NASA providing a requirement and funds for R&D.

        Most of the time the technology already existed and it was merely a question of adapting it to the task. For example, the moon lander engines which were originally developed for reliability in use for missiles.

        1. “Most of the time the technology already existed and it was merely a question of adapting it ”

          literally the truth of 99% of all technology form the first sharp stick on wards

          1. I was talking about more in the sense that the subcontractors already had something on the shelf that they could use for the purpose – just slap a NASA sticker on top and a billion dollar price tag.

        2. Some only existed as ideas and some had to be developed on the fly. Yes contractors would not hesitate to use already developed systems if they could. It’s just common sense.

          But to say the contractors were just a bunch of crooks ripping off NASA goes way too far.

          Yes certain contractors can get away wirh ripping off the government. Tier one contractors like Lockheed and Boeing come to mind. But both are notoriously incompetent and really unable to produce anything . The 737 Max is a great example of fraud and a bad design.

          1. No no, I wasn’t criticizing the contractors for that. I’m criticizing the people who are saying that it’s because of NASA that these technologies exist.

            In reality they’re mostly borrowed from other fields that were already developing the same technology for other purposes, or already had it made for something else, ran through the PR machine, and re-branded as a “spin-off” for the space program to justify spending all that money.

            Some of the spin-offs are also highly exaggerated in their importance. For example, digital mammography is said to come from NASA work on the Hubble telescope and is hailed as something of a lifesaving miracle. Turns out it’s not really more effective than people just looking at the x-ray film, and the devices are massively more expensive, so in the end only about 10% of the clinics use the technology. The old technology wins because you can put more people cheaper through the screening and catch more tumors.

      2. Besides, there’s a difference between government funded and socialism.

        Under socialism, the people own the means of the production, but “the people” is defined as the collective will of the people as identified in the state, so the government doesn’t merely fund the development to be done by private enterprises – it is the private enterprises all together.

        Any person actually working “own” their means of production in the sense that they’re theoretically an integral part of the people as a whole, but in practical terms they’re just working there and have no say in anything.

        Socialists just like to play the point that everything done by the state is socialism (e.g. welfare, public education…) to the point that you’re making – that everything already IS socialism – but the real point of socialism is total state takeover of all industry and commerce to the benefit of the people (or in practice: the political elite).

        1. As a corollary, it’s often understood (and quite deliberately so) that any collective action such as unions are “socialist”.

          But collective action is no stranger to capitalism – it’s just freedom of association. In fact, it’s part of a well functioning market that people can exchange information, pool their resources etc.

          However, since the socialists are trying to hijack these concepts to strive for state hegemony, they’re at the same time stealing the use of them from the people who do not wish to institute socialism. This then turns to false accusations of hypocrisy, e.g. “Oh, you won’t vote left, therefore you’re against pensions.” etc.

          Basically, the left has created this very “capitalism” monster that they’re arguing against.

          1. That is one of the most simultaneously correct, succinct, and cogent explanations I’ve ever seen. I’m expecting you are even aware of the difference between Menshaveks and Bolshiveks and that the US has nearly wandered into what the Menshaveks wanted.

          2. Yes. But the Soviets had a curious idea of “democratic centralism” where decisions could be made democratically, but once voted they become binding to all members. That’s one major difference between the systems, and the reason why things went south very fast. Once a decision is reached, everybody’s supposed to adopt that point of view even if they originally disagreed with it. You can immediately see why this is dangerous in politics.

            So, a major disagreement between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was about authority and who should have a voice in the party. Essentially, who is allowed to take part in the debate leading up to the vote. Lenin’s “vanguardism” or the re-definition of the party members as professional revolutionaries who are tasked to teach people correct class-consciousness and theory of communism re-defined the system to become insular and exclusive, a closed circle of bourgeois intellectuals.

            Over time, the Bolsheviks made communism/socialism into a religion with dogmas that are not to be questioned (to prevent corruption from within), which then bit them in the rear in the form of Stalin who used the very rhetoric to murder everyone who disagreed with him. The whole soviet system and its leadership disappeared intellectually up their own rectum.

            The Mensheviks were more inclusive to all causes and compromizes, while the Bolsheviks were purists who thought of themselves as “scientific socialists” after Marx and developed fancy pseudo-scientific and pseudo-philosophical theories to support it. Problem is, Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism was inconsistent and unscientific, which made Marxism-Leninism equally daft and circular in its arguments. They basically defined their social reality in a way that made the Bolsheviks always right in any question, which became the butt of many many Radio Yerevan jokes. The party is always right.

          3. On a more fundamental level, the reason why the Soviet (and alike) systems failed was their fundamental and complete reliance on a System as a solution to social issues.

            Any time you set up a System, the System becomes its own purpose. The first thing you have to do when you’re installing a System is to protect the System from being compromised. But if you succeed in doing that, it no longer matters whether it does achieve its purpose: you can’t get rid of the System from within the System because you’ve chained yourself with it.

            That’s why socialism can never deal with democracy in any real sense. Once in power, it has to protect itself from people who might vote to change or dismantle it, making the System fail its purpose, which requires that the System insulates itself from any influence by the people.

            The State and the People automatically disassociate, like oil and vinegar after things stop shaking.

            That’s the fundamental point behind democratic centralism as well: Lenin recognized that if the party was open to everyone, it would become overrun by right-wing elements like the NSDAP did in Germany. (Hitler was a royalist spy sent to infiltrate the party, subsequently taking it over for himself.) The only way against that was to form the party rules in a way that made the whole thing into a mirror image of fascism anyways and gave power to Stalin. Oh the irony.

      1. Pencils were pre-existing technology. As I understand it both the Russians and the Yanks used pencils at the beginning of their manned missions, and both sides had to change to pens because pencil shavings in free-fall are a nightmare.

    1. The Russians actually did more science on the moon than the Americans, by using remote controller rovers with spectroscopes and drills sampling over 500 different locations. The Soviet moon rovers weren’t surpassed until the Mars rover Opportunity.

      The Soviet space program didn’t “spin” much off though, because the planned economy dictated what sort of products should be made, so there was no technology transfer between the different fields of society. It wasn’t a system where you make something and see whether people find it useful. It was a system where the state recognizes the demand for something – like televisions or washing machines – and then decides whether to do anything about it (ie. whether it’s necessary, are there any resources…), and then orders and organizes the development and production of it.

      In the later years it turned pretty absurd, with the Politburo trying to plan things like women’s fashion to produce the right kind of clothes that the people would wear. Of course by the time it got to the stores, if it did at all, it was already out of fashion.

  2. As a child of the Apollo era who subsequently got into a career of science, technology and engineering predicated upon that fascination, it is strange to review the old photos and footage of the lunar surface and conclude that most, if not all, of them were faked. Indeed the free thinking me of today is open to the suggestion that the whole project was a hoax, but perhaps we don’t like to talk about that in pleasant company.

  3. I am currently reading :”One Giant Leap” by Charles Fishman and, one of the many things he lists as being created or vastly improved by the Apollo Program was that NASA taught silicon Valley how to make chips that were 100% reliable because that had to be. The book also dispels the myths that both Tang and Velcro were invented for the Space Program…they both came prior to it.

    1. Spending money means spending time and resources. You may think that the money spent goes around the economy to make people wealthier, but reality is a bit more complex.

      For example, if I buy a gallon of gasoline, the station keeper earns money and can buy something for themselves – but – my consumption of the gallon of gasoline appears as higher demand for a limited resource, and that causes the prices to go up slightly due to supply and demand. Someone else can’t buy that gallon of gasoline, so yet someone else has to work to extract more oil. Anything that depends on gasoline, such as transportation of groceries to your local store, goes up in price a minute amount.

      Therefore, whether me using the gallon of gasoline is beneficial to the economy depends on whether I used it to do something else that is more valuable in real terms. Whether my use of the resource adds to the total amount of resources available to the society, or reduces it. Whether I’m a producer or a consumer – a worker or a servant.

      The point is that not all work is productive, and many if not most occupations these days are actually consuming instead of producing value. An easy example is a barista, who takes up resources to brew you coffee that you could easily brew yourself with less effort than it takes to get to the coffee shop. You go to the coffee shop because it’s “socially necessary”. You’re told it’s a good thing to spend your money on services, and if you don’t then you’re considered an awful miser – even though in reality this activity is reducing everyone’s wealth.

      You would actually do better by taking all your money out in cash, and burning it, because by reducing the amount of money in circulation you increase everyone else’s purchasing power – but that would be an awful thing to witness because everyone wants that money for themselves in particular. So they come up with these dog and pony shows that waste resources to get it.

      Likewise, spending the money “here” to shoot up space rockets, or equally well throwing down bombs at foreign countries, or building highway bridges to nowhere, or flipping burgers in a fast food restaurant…etc. doesn’t actually benefit the economy. It may create jobs and pay a bunch of people their wages, but it’s still a waste because it indirectly drives up the cost of everything. Some people benefit, the rest of us lose because of this make-work.

      That’s the point behind the “spin-off” counter-argument: you can argue that there’s an indirect economic benefit from the technology that was developed through the space program. But that’s just implying it couldn’t have come by any other way (taking credit of a coincidence), even cheaper than shooting massive aluminum penises up the sky to flip the bird to the Russians. It’s also the perfect argument because you can’t evaluate if it’s true – it’s impossible to measure so you either believe it or you don’t.

  4. I think it is better to give credit to NASA with all the space technology, planerary science, astronomy…

    Because, when talking about technology progress in the 50s…80s, for things like aviation, space, semiconductors, radio, material science and many, many other stuff, the stronger incentive was the cold war. But it is embarrassing to tell that it is the looming threat of a global nuclear war was the reason we have computers and smartphones and airliners today.

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