Boomers Benefited from Space Products

Fifty five years ago this past week, Russian army major Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Alan Shepherd, the first American in space, followed a month later. Thus began the Space Race. Congress got on board with funding this competition between the world’s two super powers, and continued as long as NASA articulated the clear mission outlined by President Kennedy, to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

After Neil Armstrong did walk on the moon in 1968, and subsequent moon missions followed, the race had been won. Public interest waned without the spectacular goals of the first decade and Congress began cutting funding for space exploration.

One of the arguments for continuing to fund space exploration was, and still is, that the country would benefit from the research and development necessary to tackle the challenging issues faced in living and working in space. The fact is, the lives of every U.S. citizen, if not most of the world, has been touched by products that were developed as a direct result of space research. Among these products are advancements in solar panel energy, water purification systems, implantable heart monitors, cancer therapy, computing systems, enriched baby food and even a global search-and-rescue system, among others.

Specifically, there are products that come closer to home for boomers and every American:

• Cordless tools: NASA needed a way for astronauts to be able to work outside their spacecraft, whether on the moon or in space, and having tools with an extension cord was not going to fill the bill. The original cordless tools came about thanks to the first moon landing.

• Digital thermometers; Boomers recall the glass tubes filled with mercury or mercurochrome that their doctors and mothers slipped under their tongues to take their temperature. The thermometer was disinfected with alcohol after each use. Today’s moms use the technology developed by NASA for use on the first space station, Skylab. A digital thermometer probe could be inserted into the ear and a temperature reading was returned in two seconds. Disposable probe covers eliminated the need for astronauts to disinfect the thermometer after each use.

• Memory foam; Again dating back to the first moon launch, NASA was looking for a way to cushion astronauts from the G-forces during blastoff, but also to soften the as yet unknown impact of landing on the moon’s surface. Researchers came up with what they called “slow springback foam” for the astronauts’ chairs. The foam would conform to the astronauts’ bodies, and spring back when the pressure and weight was lifted. Today we know it as memory foam, and it’s used in a variety of products, most notably, shoe insoles and mattresses.

• Scratch-resistant glass; Space exploration has been responsible for a variety of coatings for glass and metal. In this case, a solution was needed to protect the glass from space dust and debris that bombarded it during flight. The Foster Grant Corporation was the first to license NASA’s coating for use on sunglasses. Today almost all eyewear has a derivative of the scratch-resistant coating that was developed more than fifty years ago.

• Smoke detectors; The tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire on a test run in 1967, and on-board fires in later missions, brought home the need for a detector that could warn astronauts. In 1970, NASA partnered with the Honeywell Corporation to develop smoke detectors that also detected certain gas and radiation levels for the Skylab space station. Today many states and municipalities require homeowners to have smoke detectors in their homes.

• Cochlear implants; A NASA engineer’s use of a hearing aid led him to research how NASA sensing and telemetry equipment might help the deaf and hard of hearing. Today people who could not hear are discovering sound for the first time thanks to the cochlear implants that were developed from research NASA needed to create sensing equipment and navigational aids.

Most boomers recalled tasting freeze-dried ice cream at some point in their school lives, much to their dismay. Freeze-dry technology was developed for space travel. Mister Boomer recalls his family getting cereal with freeze-dried strawberries in the late sixties. However, contrary to what many boomers believed, Tang was not developed for space travel. It was invented by General Foods in 1957 and later sent on John Glenn’s Gemini space mission, and subsequent missions, to give astronauts some variety from the water and powdered milk that was the basis of their drinking choices. Teflon was also not developed for space. DuPont invented teflon in 1938, far removed from any space program yet conceived.

There were, however, many other enhancements and inventions that are now part of our lives, that could only be thought of as science fiction when we were young boomers. Today the promise of many more live-saving and life-changing products in the fields of health and medicine, transportation, engineering, computing and software are possible from the research needed for deep space exploration and landing on Mars. In fact, advancements are already being translated for public consumption. One out of every 1,000 patents issued each year are to NASA scientists and researchers. In robotics, exoskeletons that are being designed to assist astronauts in various atmospheric conditions are now helping paraplegics to walk; water purification research is helping countries around the world to filter contaminants from available water; and advances in miniaturization are entering the world of consumer and home electronics.

Boomers watched Star Trek every week in the early sixties, and heard the show’s opening narration of space being the final frontier. What we’ve discovered is that the further we aim out into space, the more we help ourselves back on Earth.

Are you aware of a space technology in your lives, boomers?

Boomers Are Still Ironing Out the Details

In a recent discussion among millennials and boomers that Mister Boomer was privy to, the subject of ironing came up. Mister B was surprised to hear that virtually all of those present said they had to at least occasionally iron clothing. Some, both men and women, said they did so weekly, while one professed to ironing every day! By contrast, Mister B avoids ironing like the plague. He refuses to buy anything that might need ironing, though many things still do. And what’s with that? Like robot maids and flying cars, we were promised that our clothes would never need ironing again!

The origins of ironing — pressing material with a hot implement in order to straighten and smooth fabric — are unknown. Yet there is evidence of the Chinese smoothing fabric by pressing with a metal basket filled with hot coals at least 1,000 years ago, and it may very well have happened sooner.

It was the late Middle Ages before people fashioned metal implements designed to smooth fabric. Then in 18th and 19th century England and Europe, glass “smoothers” were popular. These tools resembled hand stamps more than the irons that appeared in the 19th century. By the 1800s, irons were shaped implements that were heated on a stove for the express purpose of smoothing fabric. It was a hugely laborious task. Wealthy patrons could afford a dedicated stove and multiple irons, so one could heat while another cooled. Those less fortunate were forced to do without or reheat one implement over and over again. It has been noted that in Victorian households, laundry was a two-day affair; one of those days was reserved for ironing.

The first iron powered by electricity was patented by Henry Seely in 1882 in New York City. However, almost no one except the very wealthy or privileged had electricity, so it remained a novelty. It wasn’t until 1889 that a consumer-based electric iron was available. With it came the promise of relief of the drudgery of ironing that had been practiced centuries earlier.

Flash forward to the twentieth century, when the idea of ironing moved to finding fabrics that either needed less ironing, or none at all. Rayon, a cellulose-acetate product, appeared in 1924. In 1931 the DuPont Company invented nylon. It was the first fabric completely synthesized from petrochemicals. Nylon stockings arrived in 1939, and they were an immediate fashion hit with women in North America and Europe. At the beginning ofd the War, cotton was king with the US military, but nylon stockings production was interrupted as the military began to find uses for nylon. By the end of the War, manufactured fabrics comprised 15% of all fiber used by the military. A good portion of it was nylon, which was first used to replace silk for parachutes, then for tents, coats and other fabric needs.

After the War, nylon stockings production resumed, and nylon was used for auto upholstery and carpeting in the earliest boomer days. There was still no sign of the iron-free future that was predicted, until the 1950s, when new fibers became available. As manufacturers blended cotton with acrylics, the first articles of clothing advertised as “wash and wear” appeared in 1952. Development on blending cotton with synthetics continued through the 1960s and into the ’70s, giving rise to “permanent press” and “wrinkle-resistant fabrics” that could stand less ironing. This timeline coincided with the expansion of electric home dryers, which were available since the 1920s, but after the War is when they caught on with boomer families who could now afford them, and wanted the convenience. Thus started the foray into a future that promised less ironing.

Mid-century modern houses built in the 1950s and ’60s often had built-in ironing boards that, since ironing wouldn’t be needed as often, were hidden inside a cabinet or recessed into the wall. There was none of that in the Mister Boomer household. Mister B remembers that clothing literally went through the wringer in his house, so there was little doubt the items would need ironing. The circular washing machine in Mister B’s basement had a double-roller attachment above the washing drum. Mister B’s mom would pull pieces of the laundry from the drum and thread them between the rollers. His mom turned a crank with a wooden handle alongside the rollers and the laundry piece made its way through, extracting excess water that remained after the spin cycle. The extracted water was funneled down a chute to the concrete basement floor, where it slid into a drain. Then the items — clothing, sheets, towels or what have you — were clipped to a clothesline to dry. In the coldest winter months, laundry dried in the basement. The other seasons, it was hung outside. When dry, the clothing was ready to be ironed. His mother labored for hours, ironing shirts, pants, sheets and pillow cases on the folding ironing board in the living room. The board was kept in his mom’s closet when not in use, but in a small house with limited electrical outlets, it had to be brought out near the front door in the living room so the iron could be plugged in an available outlet and still reach the board.

Somewhere along the way Mister Boomer’s mother acquired a mangle, which was an ironing device popular in the 1950s and ’60s. Mister B was fascinated with the machine. It was a stand-alone metal contraption, with its own cover. When the cover was lifted, it revealed a large, fabric-covered roller approximately three feet long and a curved metal plate below it. The machine’s metal plate was electrically heated so clothing could be fed in between the plate and the roller, which pressed the garment as it moved through. Somewhere in the mid-60s, the machine disappeared from Mister Boomer’s basement. Perhaps it reached the end of its useful life and was discarded; Mister B does not know its fate. That left his mom to do all of the ironing by hand once again. Make no mistake about it, ironing was a woman’s job at that time. Dads were not yet “enlightened” enough to take on part of the household chores other than those on the outside of the house.

That brings us back to today, when advances in technology have delivered “no-iron” fabrics that everyone knows will eventually need a “touch-up.” So, the hand-held electric iron continues to be a necessary part of every household. Do you think once Google perfects the self-driving car that they might want to take on laundry that irons itself?

Do you have fun memories of ironing or watching your mom iron, boomers, or are they ironing nightmares? Have you reduced or nearly eliminated ironing from your lives or are we all doomed to a future tied to ironing boards?