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 in Space

At the time of this writing, fellow boomer and big-time astronaut Scott Kelly (born 1964) is aboard the International Space Station (ISS) along with American doctor-astronaut-flight engineer Kjell Lindgren, one Japanese man and two Russian cosmonauts. Their mission is to study communications and conduct various experiments while living one year in space. The mission duration is twice that of any previous ISS crew, an intentional scheduling to study the long-term effects of space on the human body. NASA is gathering information for a possible mission to Mars in the 2030s.

Fifty years ago this month, in August of 1965, a similar mission was launched by NASA to investigate the effects of space on humans. Gemini 5 was a week-long mission with pilot Charles “Pete” Conrad and command pilot Gordon Cooper on board the spacecraft as it orbited the planet. In all the astronauts spent eight days in space, the time it would take to fly to the moon and back.

After losing out to the Russians on being the first in space and the first to walk in space, America was determined to get back in the Space Race and had begun to catch up. It was May 25, 1961 when President John F. Kennedy announced our goal of sending men to the moon — and back — by the end of the decade. In December of that year, NASA expanded the Gemini missions to include two-man spacecrafts.

Gemini 5 was to be the first big test for going to the moon. After launch, the astronauts were to rendezvous with a practice pod that had been released from the spacecraft in a test of maneuverability and navigation. Gemini 5 was to be first in another regard, in that it had fuel cells for power. However, from the start the crew had trouble with the fuel cells that resulted in a diminished electrical power supply. Mission Control considered scrapping the mission, but once the fuel cells were turned off and restarted, the crew was ordered to give the cells tasks that steadily increased the need for more power. It was determined that the mission could proceed.

Having missed their window to meet with the pod, an alternative plan was suggested. Buzz Aldrin had a PhD in orbital mechanics, and offered a plan where the astronauts would be tasked to navigate to a specific location. The plan was accepted and executed on the third day. It was the first time a spacecraft carried out precision maneuvers, and it worked perfectly.

A few other glitches prevented the astronauts from completing some of the planned experiments, though the vast majority were performed, including medical tests, measurement tests and photography of the Earth.

On August 29, 1965, the crew positioned the spacecraft to return to Earth. In a controlled reentry, they rotated the capsule to create lift and drag. Everything seemed to work as planned, but a programmer had mistakenly entered the rate of rotation of the Earth. As a result, the capsule splashed down 80 miles from the planned coordinates in the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite a few glitches the mission was a success. NASA had the information it needed, and proved that men could survive in space for the time necessary to get them to the moon and back. The Space Race was about to get very interesting.

Mister Boomer doesn’t remember Gemini 5 in particular, but he, like many boomers, watched every space launch and splashdown with great interest. He followed the articles in the daily newspaper day by day for every mission from Mercury to Gemini and on the Apollo. He was mesmerized by the prospect of space travel that had been imagined by science fiction writers, starting with his reading of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. He has been a big fan of the Space Program ever since.

Flash forward to our current space endeavors, and it is truly amazing what we have accomplished in fifty years. No one could have imagined that the U.S. and Russia would cooperate on space missions back then; the Cold War and Space Race were intertwined. Let’s hope tensions between our two countries doesn’t bring us back to a time when we were more interested in national pride than the pursuit of knowledge and discovery.

Did you watch and listen to reports about Gemini 5 fifty years ago, boomers?