Today, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a federal agency of the United States of America) celebrates its 60th birthday. Founded on 29th July 1958, NASA first started operating on 1st October in the same year. Sixty years ago, the United States and what was then the Soviet Union were locked in a so-called ‘Space Race’; the competition between these two nations to become the first to escape Earth’s gravitational pull and prove the strength of their technology and innovation.
Although space science can sometimes feel rather alien (excuse the pun) to most people, we actually have a lot to thank NASA for. The Space Race, and the politics surrounding it at the time, was a huge driving force for innovation in Science and Technology, and particularly in Materials Science and Engineering, as space exploration brought with it new challenges that required brand new solutions. These solutions were not to be confined to those traveling to, and working in, space however, as the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that established NASA and its founding principles stated that, “activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” So how exactly has NASA’s 60 years of work helped us?
A tremendous amount, as it turns out. From basic materials science solutions that we have utilized here on Earth, to the futuristic solutions that could one day be improving the quality of life for many millions of people, NASA has certainly been a hub of innovation over the last six decades, though perhaps not for the materials that immediately spring to mind. Although NASA was responsible for utilizing Teflon and Velcro in new and innovative ways, both of these materials are often misattributed to NASA’s research and development work, when they merely popularized them. Similarly, the story of how NASA spent millions of pounds developing a pen that could work in space when the Soviet cosmonauts simply used a pencil is also a bit of a myth; pencils create problematic graphite dust when used, which could seriously damage equipment in space, not to mention the fact that they are practically kindling in an environment where one may also be storing some fairly flammable fuels. The Space Pens that both space agencies used were in fact developed by a company called Fisher, who incorporated a cool bit of non-Newtonian fluid dynamics into the mix; the ink is held under pressure, so the direction of writing should not matter as it does not rely on gravity to work, but the ink is the particularly clever part, remaining a solid until slightly agitated by the rollerball which moves when it is being used, thus liquefying just enough of the ink to be able to deposit this onto a surface, while allowing the pen to remain pressurized and leak-free. Fisher created this to solve a problem that had not been encountered before, but while the pens were not a product of the Space Race or NASA’s development team, many other everyday items were.
You may never have considered what your sneakers might have to do with space, but if you are wearing a pair of Nike Airs, you may be intrigued to discover that the ‘Air’ part is a direct descendant from some cool NASA technology. M. Frank Rudy, an aerospace engineer and Nike researcher, developed the famous bubbled sole using the same blow rubber molding technique as he had used to create astronaut’s helmets for the Apollo missions when he was employed by NASA. The shock-absorbing property of interconnected bubbles of inert gas were incorporated into sneakers to increase comfort for the wearer. To this day, Nike Air is still a major selling point for the brand.
The NASA-created comfort doesn’t stop at sneakers though. Ever had a snooze on a memory foam mattress? You may feel like you’re sleeping on a cloud, but you are actually dozing on a material that was initially created by NASA to more evenly distribute the weight of astronauts are they are propelled away from Earth at potentially painfully high G-forces, in order to make their journey into space more comfortable and much safer. The dense, viscoelasticity of the polyurethane foam means that it can mold to a shape in moments, matching the pressure being applied to it, but once the force of the shape is removed, it slowly returns to its original shape. This means that your mattress and pillow continue to support your weight evenly throughout the night, even when you are wriggling around in your sleep back here on Earth.
Ever wondered about the connection between swimsuits and space shuttles? Well, unless you are as curious about fluid dynamics as I am, you may not have, but the former benefits from developments in the latter. For optimal speed through the water, a swimmer ideally wants to minimize any drag between them and the water that would slow them down. Many go to such lengths to reduce their coefficient of drag that they remove all body hair, but for SpeedoUSA this wasn’t enough. In 2004, they approached NASA and asked them to help them develop a swimsuit that would significantly reduce a swimmer’s drag. NASA’s knowledge of fluid dynamics enabled them to launch large items through the air, minimizing drag in order to make the process as cheap, efficient and safe as possible. The two teams tested the fluid dynamics of water across newly developed materials and designs, before creating the LZR Racer swimsuit, with as many drag-inducing features removed as possible.
Surely a trip to the dentist won’t have too many connections to space technology – after all, teeth are already designed to withstand hot and cold temperatures, a range of pHs, and a fair amount of force. And yet, the influence of NASA’s research team has even reached the inside of your mouth. Transparent polycrystalline alumina may sound a little like Star Trek’s transparent aluminum, but this material was actually developed by NASA scientists to track missiles by their heat signatures, but this smooth, robust, clear material has actually found a new life as the material that invisible orthodontic braces are made of. In fact, many space materials have found their way into the dentist’s toolkit, with structurally reinforcing materials being used as fillings and implants.
The humble spectacles don’t seem like a particularly new invention, having been made since at least the 13th Century, but in the 1970s a regulation was passed that stated that all eye glasses must be shatter-resistant. Lenses traditionally made of glass had to be created with a new material, but in the age of plastic this was no problem. The issues arose when the glasses were being used. Glass was very resistant to scratching, but plastic did not hold the same scratch-resistant properties. Enter NASA’s scientists. In a perfect example of a material being created for one application but finding many other unexpected uses, scratch-resistant films were first created during research being carried out on water purification techniques, which were then developed into the tough coatings on astronaut’s helmets, before finally being applied to plastic lenses for spectacles in the 1980s.
Aside from my diminutive height, one of the biggest barriers for me becoming an astronaut is the limited food options. Those of us that have ever visited a science museum may have, on a whim, purchased a foil packet of some freeze-dried treat labelled ‘astronaut food’, only to find the contents somewhat unappealing. Astronauts have actually lived on food in this form, but early space travel did not even have that luxury, relying instead of tubes of food that they had to squeeze into their mouths to eat. The process of freeze-drying food was developed by NASA to help improve astronaut’s food options, particularly as missions became longer and hot water in space became a possibility. This cryodessication process developed by NASA was proven to be less destructive for materials, particularly those that would degrade at the higher temperatures of more traditional dehydration techniques. As such, the process was applied to a range of other industries, including the pharmaceutical industry. Given NASA’s motto of their work being ‘for the benefit of all’, scientists on the International Space Station are currently investigating any potential differences of carrying out the process in microgravity conditions compared to on Earth, to see whether the process can be further improved.
With these and so many more examples of the positive contributions that NASA’s 60-year history has already made to our lives, it is encouraging to see that they are also looking to improving our future too. From the development of robotics that could be used to create better prosthetics, to investigations into microencapsulation technology in low gravity atmospheres that could spell the future for how drugs are delivered into our bodies, the impact of space science will certainly continue to be felt here on Earth. With the emergence of new players in the field of space research such as SpaceX and Blue Origin who seem to be fighting their own Space Race, space continues to be a driving force for new science and technology innovation, but it all started with NASA, sixty years ago today. Here’s to at least another sixty more. Happy 60th birthday, NASA!