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July 10, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 1:29pm

10 everyday technologies that began in space

From the space shuttle to your living room, here's how it all began.

By Vinod

This month marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the surface of our satellite. Considering the years that have passed, it is no surprise that the technology that took Apollo 11 to the moon is now less powerful than that found in the average smartphone. NASA and its sister space organisations around the world have traditionally been a hotbed for trialling new technologies, but did you know that the following were first used in space?


Long-distance telecommunications

Recent advances in telecommunications now allow to call people on the other side of the planet without having to worry about the distance – and it’s thanks to NASA that the technology was developed.

The technology actually has its roots in several NASA inventions, which took place over several decades and formed an important part of communicating with the Apollo missions.

Before the missions, NASA send a series of satellites into orbit for the purpose of communicating what the conditions of outer space were truly like, and using similar satellite technology, around 200 communication satellites currently orbit the globe each day. NASA monitors the locations and health of many of these satellites to ensure that we can continue to talk to people around the corner or overseas.

Today, hundreds of satellites remain in orbit around the Earth, accompanied by thousands of similar objects covering weather, television, and other media signals which make it possible for us to stay in touch with friends all over the world.

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Mobile phone cameras

From selfies to cat pictures, the mobile phone camera has quickly become the most important tool for many users. However, one in every three mobile phone cameras on the planet uses technology that was invented for NASA spacecraft.

The concept of digital photography was developed in the 1960s by Eugene Lally, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California, who investigated ways of using mosaic photosensors to digitise light signals that could then be used to capture still images.

Lally’s work spurred decades of further NASA research, as engineers sought ways to create small, lightweight image sensors that could withstand the harsh environments in space, eventually leading to the creation of miniature imaging system prototypes in the 1990s, which formed the forefront of small-scale digital cameras.

This wasn’t NASA’s only contribution to the world of digital photography, either, as it was a JPL engineer named Frederic Billingsley who first published the word "pixel" (short for "picture element"), in 1965.


The computer mouse

Now an everyday part of our work and home PC usage, the humble computer mouse was invented by Stanford researcher Douglas Engelbart in the early 1960s. However, it was just part of a much larger project, and it was thanks to NASA funding that the mouse developed and became the tool we know and love today.

The testing and implementation of the mouse was a key part of turning the computers used in the space program from basic arithmetic machines into something resembling the computers we use today, allowing the user much simpler and more direct control over the device.
The mouse didn’t have an easy birth, however, and was nearly trumped by a light pen, which was favoured by the many of the astronaut test subjects, something which would have transformed the way we interact with our computers today.


Google Maps

Now vital for many of us in order to navigate around every day, mapping services such as Google Maps also have their roots in space technology. Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, which provide the necessary tracking services to place where a user is, were originally launched in 1978, with the first satellites launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base using Atlas rockets that were converted intercontinental ballistic missiles.

However, the system expanded into commercial markets in the 1980s, and since 1994 has been made up of network of 24 satellites placed into orbit and overseen by the U.S. Department of Defence.

The solar-powered GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day, travelling at around 7,000 mph, in a very precise orbit and transmit signal information to earth. GPS receivers take this information and use triangulation to calculate the user’s exact location.


solar power

Solar Power

Unsurprisingly, given their often slightly closer proximity to the sun, NASA air and spacecraft have played a key part in the development of the solar power industry. The association formed a 28-member union called the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology in the 1990s which looked to build and fly unmanned aircraft at around 60,000 feet in order to carry out scientific experiments.

The craft were to be flown using solar power sources, as these would not add unnecessary weight to the aircraft, and formed part of the pioneering Pathfinder and Helios vehicles. Pathfinder had a 99 foot wingspan, and was powered by solar photovoltaic cells mounted on top of its wings, which produced up to 7,200 watts to power its six electric-driven propellers, as well as the suite of scientific instruments.

This technology was passed on to home-building, with millions of homes now equipped with crystal silicon solar power which help reduce energy expenses and pollution.

cordless drill

Cordless Tools

An everyday experience for most of us, tools from a handheld vacuum to a hairdryer have their roots in space technology. Although NASA credits Black & Decker as inventing the first battery -powered tools in 1961, the agency’s research helped refine the technology that led to lightweight, cordless medical instruments, hand-held vacuum cleaners and other tools.

As part of its preperations for the moon landing, NASA needed equipment astronauts could use to get rock and soil samples. The tool needed to be lightweight and powerful enough to drill into the moon’s surface. NASA, together with Black and Decker, figured out that attaching a cord to a drill would be difficult for the astronauts so they invented a battery-operated motor drill.

Working in the context of a limited space environment, Black & Decker developed a computer program for the tool that reduced the amount of power expended during use to maximize battery life. Following the Apollo program, Black & Decker went on to apply the same principles to make other lightweight, battery-powered tools for everyday consumers which are now a common everyday presence.

smoke detector

Smoke detectors

A true lifesaver for many, smoke detectors are now present in nearly every home, playing a vital role in keeping us safe. But the roots of the item are in the detection of noxious gases in space.

In the 1970s, NASA partnered with the Honeywell Corp. to develop a device that would detect smoke and toxic gases in Skylab, America’s first space station. The result was the first ionization smoke detector, using a minute amount of the radioactive isotope Americium-241.

Later that decade, inexpensive photoelectric detection devices were developed, which go off when smoke (or sometimes a hot, steamy shower) blocks a light beam emanating from the unit.

car crash

Structural Analysis Software

NASA’s software design program has influenced many of the most widely-used computer programs currently in operation today, but none more so than NASTRAN, its structural design and analysis programs.

Launched in 1964 as the agency looked to streamline the design and implementation of structural analysis software across research centres, and resulted in $701 million in cost savings from 1971 to 1984.

The NASTRAN software application was originally written to help design more efficient space vehicles such as the Space Shuttle, but was released to the public in 1971 in an attempt to boost the commercial possibilities of the software.

NASTRAN has since gone on to perform many applications, primarily in analysing the behaviour of elastic structures of any size, shape, or purpose – which is particularly useful to the automotive industry in designing front suspension systems and steering linkages, as well as designing railroad tracks and cars, bridges, power plants, skyscrapers, and aircraft.




Now a crucial part of many home televisions and present in sensors all around us, the humble light-emitting diode (LED) was first developed for growing plants aboard the NASA space shuttle, as they react quicker and grow better under such light. Now used primarily for lighting, the items also play an extraordinary role in helping heal the sick.

The plant -growth LED technology has contributed to the development of medical devices such as award-winning WARP 10, a hand-held, high-intensity, LED unit developed by Quantum Devices Inc.

The WARP 10 is intended for the temporary relief of minor muscle and joint pain, arthritis, stiffness, and muscle spasms, and also promotes muscle relaxation and increases local blood circulation. The WARP 10 is being used by the U.S. Department of Defence and U.S. Navy as a noninvasive "soldier self-care" device that aids front-line forces with first aid for minor injuries and pain, thereby improving endurance in combat.

The next-generation WARP 75 has been used to relieve pain in bone marrow transplant patients, and will be used to combat the symptoms of bone atrophy, multiple sclerosis, diabetic complications, Parkinson’s disease, and in a variety of ocular applications.

security guard

Video Enhancing and Analysis Systems

Most of us laugh when we see the detective in a television show zoom in and pull up incredibly clear images simply by ‘enhancing’ an original shot. But the technology does exist, in some frame, and was developed by NASA.

Video Image Stabilisation and Registration (VISAR) technology was created by NASA to assist FBI agents investigating video footage.
VISAR has since gone on to be one the building blocks for further projects such as the Video Analysis System (VAS) produced by Intergraph Government Solutions, a provider of several image and ‘geospatiality solutions’ to the American government.

Originally used for enhancing video images from night-time videotapes made with hand-held camcorders, VAS is a tool for video enhancement and analysis offering support of full-resolution digital video, stabilisation, frame-by-frame analysis, conversion of analogue video to digital storage formats, and increased visibility of filmed subjects without altering underlying footage.

Aside from law enforcement and security applications, VAS has also been adapted to serve the military for reconnaissance, weapons deployment, damage assessment, training, and mission debriefing.


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