by Meridith Levinson

It Came From Outer Space: NASA Innovations in Our Lives

Oct 02, 2009

Since the 1960s, NASA and its many research partners have developed a variety of products designed to keep the space shuttle safe, its astronauts healthy and comfortable, and to explore the far-reaches of our solar system. The materials and technologies they developed have proven as valuable on earth as they did in space. Here are eight consumer products that are truly heaven sent.

Nutritional Supplements

In the 1980s, scientists from NASA and Martin Marietta tested strains of microalgae to determine their use as a food supply, oxygen source, and catalyst for waste disposal on long space missions. They discovered that the microalgae contained properties that astronauts and earth-dwellers alike could use as a nutritional supplement. This discovery fueled a spinoff from Martin Marietta, Martek Biosciences, whose continued research on microalgae led to the development of two nutritional supplements—life’sDHA and life’sARA. These omega-3 fatty acids are known to improve brain function and prevent cardiovascular disease. Many baby formulas and dairy products are fortified with them.

Aerogel Insulation


Aerogel, an extremely lightweight substance known for its insulation properties, was invented 80 years ago, but its commercial applications were limited because it was expensive to manufacture and extremely fragile. Nevertheless, NASA was interested in the material for space shuttle launch applications. The agency partnered with manufacturer Aspen Aerogels to develop a process that cut production time and cost and yielded a flexible, easy-to-handle aerogel. NASA uses it on the space shuttle and the fuel cell systems on the launch pad. It also used a block of aerogel to gather comet particles and inter-stellar dust from space. On earth, aerogel is in widespread use as an industrial insulator. It’s also found in outwear, such as this Salomon boot and Burton parka.

Golf Clubs


NASA has developed many high-performance materials that have subsequently been used in the manufacture of golf clubs. One such material, Zeemet, was originally designed for the International Space Station. Zeemet’s super-elastic properties and its ability to restrain structural vibrations (known as high-damping attributes) make it a good fit for golf clubs. The Nicklaus Golf Company created a line of sticks using Zeemet inserts, which put more spin on the ball and give the golfer more control.

Memory Foam Pillows


Temper foam was originally developed in 1966 to meet NASA’s need for seat cushions that would protect astronauts from aircraft vibrations, offer improved crash protection and be more comfortable on long flights. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Dallas Cowboys’ helmets were padded with memory foam. Today, many people catch their ZZZs on memory foam or temper foam mattresses and pillows.



After the 2004 Olympics, Speedo asked NASA for help designing a faster, sleeker swimsuit. The swimwear maker tapped NASA for its understanding of fluid dynamics and knowledge of how to combat drag—two concepts that are as critical to competitive swimming as they are to efficient space flight. NASA helped Speedo perform surface drag tests on materials for its space-age wetsuit. The LZR Racer swimsuit made a big splash in 2008, when Olympic swimmers who sported them (including Michael Phelps pictured here) broke all sorts of world records. The swimsuit is so effective that it (and other high-tech suits) are banned from competition beginning in 2010.

Lithium Batteries for Hybrid and Electric Cars


Despite the amount of fuel needed to launch a space shuttle (835,958 gallons of liquid propellants)—or perhaps because of it—NASA is a big proponent of electric vehicles. So much so that the Kennedy Space Center worked with Hybrid Technologies, a manufacturer of lithium-ion battery powered electric vehicles, to improve the battery management systems in the company’s cars. The result of their collaboration? The first all-electric taxi used in New York City as well as an electric MINI Cooper (pictured here).

Infrared Thermometers


The aural thermometers parents and pediatricians use to take the temperatures of their squirmy little ones are based on technology that the space shuttle uses to measure the temperature of distant stars and planets. The infrared sensors on the space shuttle get the temperature of a star by measuring the amount of infrared energy it emits. Aural thermometers function in a similar manner: They measure the amount of infrared energy that the eardrum emits. Veterinarians use aural thermometers on dogs and cats.

Eye Exams


When kids have eye exams, it’s likely that the equipment their optometrist or ophthalmologist uses is based on the optics technology that allows telescopes to see into space. Scientists from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. adapted the optics technology so that it could be used to screen people for eye disorders such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism and cataracts. The product which emerged from the Marshall Space Flight Center’s research, the VisiScreen Ocular Screening System-Clinical, has checked over three million children for eye disorders.