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?