When it comes to rockets and moon landers, NASA pretty much rules the galaxy. But it's important to remember that they're not only Skylab superstars, but ultra-genius engineers with a penchant for inventing amazing technology. Long before there was Steve Jobs, there was space pioneer Robert R. Gilruth, who proved that this kind of work really is rocket science. Experts estimate that more than 1,300 NASA products now circulate in the commercial market, most of which you'd never think about getting tested in a NASA lab. These are called "spinoffs" and they impact every aspect of our lives. Every time you adjust a smoke detector, you're using spinoff technology. New insoles in your tennis shoes? Spinoff.
Incidentally, there are some myths about NASA technology. Lots of folks believe that Tang—the delicious powdered sugar drink favored by campers—was invented by NASA. Not so. But NASA did make it popular. It's hard to believe that John Glenn himself drank this glorified Kool-Aid, much less that Glenn made the stuff famous. Also, freeze-dried ice cream was invented by the Whirlpool Corporation, because they were presumably taking a break from dishwashers.
Here are a few favorite surprises:
Space Blankets: Silver and lightweight, these specialized blankets look like science fiction gear. Used by everyone from mountain climbers to long-distance runners (they're given out for free at almost every marathon), the space blanket fits its Jetsonian name. The recipe? Depositing vaporized aluminum into plastic, apparently. Wish we could've sat in on that team meeting. "Hey guys, tell me if this is crazy: What if we took aluminum, vaporized it, and injected it into plastic..."
Cordless Tools: There is some chicken-and-egg debate about cordless tools, whether NASA or Black & Decker can claim authorship of battery-powered screwdrivers. Let's just say that without NASA, we might never be able to use an 18-volt detail sander without hunting around for a wall socket. (And here's a hilarious thought: If you switch on a Dirt Devil in zero gravity, and you "drop" it by accident, where does it go? "Captain, you've got something stuck to your suit...").
Scratch-Resistant Lenses: Here's a crazy thought: A fleck of paint that flakes off the side of a space shuttle can fly around at hyper-ballistic speeds. Indeed, that fleck of paint could smash through a window, or bust through an astronaut's helmet (and probably his or her head). In 1983, one such spec nearly shot into the Challenger shuttle. When it comes to portholes and visors, NASA had to invent something durable and scratch-resistant—which inspires our tough modern specs.
Water Filters: Brita water may be better water, but it was NASA that created the Microbial Check Valve. After all, there's not a lot of H2O in space, and astronauts have to recycle every hydrating blob—which means exactly what you think it means. It's not all glamour out there in the cosmos.
The Super Soaker: Who would have guessed that the inventor of the world's most weaponized squirt gun was a mild-mannered nuclear engineer named Lonnie G. Johnson? A lifelong tinkerer, Johnson co-patented his pneumatic sniper rifle in 1991, and the rest is history. Aside from starting an arms race among suburban kids, Johnson garnered over 40 other patents.
What are your favorite NASA inventions?