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5 Everyday Inventions You Didn‘t Know Were Invented by NASA

When you think of NASA, what probably comes to mind are images of astronauts walking on the moon, space shuttles blasting off, and robotic rovers exploring the surface of Mars. As the U.S. space agency, NASA is best known for its cosmic achievements and advancing our understanding of the universe. But did you know that in the course of pursuing its ambitious goals in space, NASA has also invented a number of technologies that we now use every day here on Earth?

That‘s right, many common items you rely on daily—from wireless headphones and computer mice to camera phones and memory foam—have origins tracing back to NASA. The brilliant scientists and engineers at NASA were tasked with developing cutting-edge solutions for the unique challenges of space travel and exploration. And as is often the case with innovation, some of the resulting technologies proved to have valuable applications well beyond their original purpose.

Let‘s take a closer look at five everyday products you likely use that were developed by NASA:

1. Wireless Headsets

It‘s hard to imagine life without the convenience and freedom of wireless headphones and earbuds. Whether you‘re working out, commuting, or just relaxing at home, being able to listen to music or take calls untethered is invaluable. The concept of wireless headsets dates back to the early 1960s and NASA‘s Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program.

NASA pilots needed a way to communicate clearly without cumbersome wires and cords getting in the way. So they partnered with two commercial airline pilots and headset makers, Courtney Graham and Keith Larkin, to quickly develop a wireless headset prototype. In just 11 days, they came up with a design that would be used by astronaut Wally Schirra on his Mercury mission. A few years later, Neil Armstrong would also wear a wireless headset when he took his historic first steps on the moon.

While those early headsets were a far cry from today‘s sleek wireless earbuds, they laid the foundation for the technology. NASA‘s push to cut the cord sparked an innovation that now enriches the daily lives of millions. Not only do wireless headsets allow us to groov to our favorite tunes and stay connected on the go, they‘re also invaluable tools for work, education, gaming and more. All thanks to NASA.

2. Computer Mouse

Here‘s another essential piece of technology you can credit to NASA—the humble computer mouse. While it seems like such a basic part of computing today, the mouse was a revolutionary input device when it was first unveiled in the 1960s.

At the time, computers were seen as sophisticated calculators and data processors. There was no graphical user interface to interact with. But a small research team at NASA Ames Research Center, including Bob Taylor and Doug Englebart, aimed to change that. They wanted to make computers more interactive and intuitive to use.

Through their experiments, the team landed on the idea of a small, handheld pointing device to easily navigate and interact with information displayed on the computer screen. Engineer Bill English built the first prototype in 1963. It featured two perpendicular wheels mounted in a small pine box, with a single button on top. The device‘s size and shape with its "tail" connecting wire earned it the nickname "mouse."

In 1968, Englebart debuted his team‘s creation in a live computer demonstration that would come to be known as "The Mother of All Demos." It was the first time the world got a glimpse of the mouse, along with other fundamental computing concepts like hyperlinks, windows, and collaborative editing. While the mouse‘s basic design would evolve over the years, the core concept proved sound. Thanks to the pioneering work and ingenuity of NASA‘s research team, the mouse would go on to become the primary way we interact with computers and unlock their full potential as creative tools. Not bad for a odd little pointing device.

3. Digital Cameras/Camera Phones

Smartphones and stand-alone digital cameras with the ability to snap high-quality photos and instantly view, edit and share them have become ubiquitous in today‘s world. In fact, they‘re so commonplace that many people, especially younger generations, have never owned a film camera. The rise of digital photography has transformed the way we capture and interact with images. And its origins go back to pioneering work done by NASA scientists and engineers in the 1960s.

The fundamental building blocks and concepts of digital imaging were developed at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory by Eugene Lally and his team. Tasked with finding ways for astronauts and spacecraft to capture higher quality space images, Lally began experimenting with mosaic photo sensors that could convert light (photons) into electronic signals (electrons). He envisioned using this "digitization" process along with a camera system that could capture, store, and transmit digital images from space.

While the technology was still primitive at the time, the key concepts were there. Lally even coined the term "pixel" (picture element) to describe the individual light-sensitive blocks that comprised the imaging sensor and would go on to become a fundamental unit of a digital image. As NASA continued to refine and advance these digital imaging concepts for space exploration over the decades, the technology also steadily made its way into commercial applications.

The first filmless electronic camera was developed in 1975 by Kodak engineer Steven Sasson, using a CCD (charge-coupled device) sensor. By the 1990s, CCD sensors were being widely used in professional digital cameras. But it was the CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) sensor, which offered lower power consumption and cost than CCD, that would ultimately enable digital cameras to go mainstream in consumer products.

The mass adoption of digital cameras, and their integration with mobile phones, was also accelerated by the development of key compression technologies like the JPEG standard. JPEG allowed large image files to be compressed down to more manageable sizes for storing and transmitting, while preserving quality. The first JPEG-compatible camera was the Kodak DCS 200, released in 1992. By the early 2000s, camera phones began hitting the market, and soon became a must-have feature.

Today, we take for granted the ability to have a high-quality digital camera in our pocket everywhere we go. We can capture thousands of images without ever needing to swap out a roll of film. We can edit, manipulate, organize, and share our photos with ease. It‘s all thanks to the groundbreaking work on digital imaging done by NASA scientists like Eugene Lally over half a century ago. Their innovations would go on to change photography forever and the way we view and interact with the world.

4. Cordless Vacuums (Dustbusters)

Raise your hand if you‘ve ever used a Dustbuster or similar handheld cordless vacuum to tidy up life‘s little messes. The powerful and convenient mini-vacs have become cleaning cabinet staples for handling spills, dirt, crumbs, and other messes without hauling out a full-size vacuum cleaner. But did you know this handy invention has its roots in NASA‘s efforts to gather samples from the surface of the moon?

When the Apollo astronauts landed on the lunar surface, one of their key objectives was to collect as much soil and rock samples as they could carry back to Earth for scientific analysis. They needed a portable, lightweight drill capable of boring several feet into the moon‘s surface to extract core samples. NASA enlisted the help of power tool maker Black & Decker to develop a special battery-powered drill for the job.

Black & Decker delivered a drill based on its existing technology but modified for the unique constraints of operating on the moon. It had to be lightweight, compact, and powerful enough to penetrate the dense lunar crust, all while running on a limited battery supply. The resulting drill was used successfully on the Apollo missions to bore holes and collect hundreds of pounds of lunar samples.

Following the success of the Apollo program, Black & Decker continued its collaboration with NASA to further advance battery-operated tools. The company developed a portable, self-contained drill capable of extracting core samples from the ocean floor, once again drawing on tech designed for the lunar missions. The key innovations were the use of computer-controlled motors to optimize efficiency and lifetime lubricated bearings to reduce friction.

Realizing the potential consumer applications of the technology, Black & Decker decided to repurpose it for a portable vacuum cleaner. In 1979, they introduced the Dustbuster, the first cordless handheld vacuum. While not as powerful as a standard vacuum, the Dustbuster‘s compact size and cordless convenience made it perfect for quick cleanups. It was an immediate hit, and Black & Decker went on to sell millions of units.

So the next time you pull out your trusty Dustbuster to erase the evidence of a snacking spree on the couch or to vanquish dust bunnies from your car, remember its distinguished lunar lineage. You‘ve got a piece of NASA-derived innovation in the palm of your hand!

5. Memory Foam

Have you ever wondered how memory foam came to be? How did we end up with mattresses, pillows, and other cushioned products made from this unique material that softens in response to body heat, swaddles you in a nest-like embrace, and springs back to its original shape once the pressure is removed? Surprise, surprise, it‘s another innovation we can thank NASA for!

The origins of memory foam (originally called "slow spring back foam") trace back to 1966 and the work of NASA scientist Chiharu Kubokawa and aeronautical engineer Charles A. Yost. At the time, NASA was looking for ways to improve the safety of aircraft cushions and make them more comfortable for pilots and passengers subjected to the extreme g-forces of lift-off and landing.

Yost began developing an open-cell polymeric "memory" foam that would allow the foam to relieve pressure on the body of a sitting or supine person, but slowly return to its original shape once the pressure was removed. The trick was finding the right chemical formulation that provided both high-energy absorption and soft characteristics.

Yost eventually hit upon the right combination, which he termed "temper foam." When NASA released the technology to the public domain in the 1980s, Yost formed his own company called Dynamic Systems to commercialize it. He initially marketed temper foam as medical equipment table pads and sports equipment.

But it was when another company, Fagerdala World Foams, began marketing the material for use in mattresses that memory foam really took off. Over the decades, memory foam would go on to revolutionize the bedding industry and become a common material in everything from shoes to furniture.

What began as a NASA initiative to keep pilots and passengers safe and comfortable would end up having an enormous impact on the daily lives of millions of people who now enjoy a better night‘s sleep and sweet dream-filled slumbers courtesy of NASA ingenuity. Not a bad offshoot from the space program.

NASA‘s Ongoing Legacy of Innovation

These five examples of everyday items with NASA origins only scratch the surface. From advances in artificial limbs and prosthetics to improved food safety and water filtration systems to new materials and coatings with beneficial properties, an enormous range of innovations developed by NASA and its partners have found valuable uses in consumer, industrial, and medical applications.

NASA‘s culture of big-picture thinking, creative problem-solving, technological ingenuity, and collaboration with industry and academia has helped spur generation after generation of inventions that make our lives better. Through its Technology Transfer Program, NASA has facilitated the commercialization of many of these technologies by U.S. businesses, creating jobs and boosting the economy.

So the next time you slip on a pair of athletic shoes made from lightweight materials, check your ear temperature with an infrared thermometer, or wrap yourself in a heat-reflective emergency blanket, remember that you may just have NASA scientists to thank for it. As we continue to expand our presence in space and shoot for the stars, who knows what new innovations for life on Earth may be sparked. One thing‘s for sure—with NASA‘s bright minds on the case, the sky‘s the limit!