Engineers and researchers at NASA have been discovering new technologies and making scientific breakthroughs since the agency was established in 1958. While their innovations have been focused mainly on the exploration of space and the universe, many discoveries have entered the commercial world in the form of products, computer systems, and machines used daily across a variety of industries. The following five inventions originated at NASA and have proven to have a positive influence on daily life.
Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator
The automatic implantable cardioverter defibrillator (AICD) is a NASA invention that has substantial life-saving benefits. It prevents arrhythmia in patients who have conditions of erratic and abnormal heart rhythm. Derived from NASA’s space circuitry technology, this pacemaker device senses heart activity. At the onset of arrhythmia, it delivers electrical shocks to correct and restore the heartbeat to its normal rhythm. The AICD was originally developed in the 1970s by Intec Systems, Inc., and Medrad Inc., both of Pittsburgh. Later developments were funded by NASA, and the first human implantation occurred in 1980. Nearly half a million Americans succumb to sudden cardiac death every year, and survivors face a 55 percent chance of a second heart attack. The invention of the AICD, along with its many technological advances through the years, have lowered the recurrence rates of these heart attacks to less than three percent.
In 1966, NASA’s Ames Research Center developed temper foam to serve as a shock absorbing padding. A polymeric foam material, it is capable of high-energy absorption while being extremely soft. It was originally designed for crash protection for airplane passengers. Since its inception by aeronautical engineer Charles Yost, temper foam has been applied to a wide variety of products. Memory foam mattresses and pillows provide comfort to consumers. Manufacturers and engineers incorporate this material into automobiles, motorcycles, civilian and military aircraft, sports helmets and equipment, horseback saddles— even in amusement park rides for impact support and protection. All of its many applications make temper foam one of the most widely used and recognized of NASA’s inventions.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) created software in the 1990s to correct data errors coming from their global network of GPS satellite receivers. The software program known as GIPSY-OASIS (GNSS-Inferred Positioning System and Orbit Analysis Simulation Software) is able to pinpoint locations with precise accuracy within five centimeters — a substantial improvement from uncorrected GPS data, which can be inaccurate by as much as 15 meters. NASA monitors the integrity of real-time GPS data for the U.S. Air Force and enables the system to be used by commercial and private pilots for navigating and landing in U.S. airspace. GIPSY-OASIS also provides precise terrestrial positioning for use in geophysical research, including climate studies, earth deformation, plate tectonics, and ice flow. Other uses for this type of data include applications in offshore drilling operations, self-driving farm machinery, and cell phones.
Enriched Baby Formula
In the 1980s, NASA funded research to develop a life-support system that would not take up space, consume too much power, or require extensive maintenance during long-duration space travel. Researchers discovered that strains of microalgae could be used as an oxygen source, waste disposal catalyst, and as a nutrient supply. The project’s scientists formed Martek Biosciences Corporation in 1985 to develop their main nutritional supplement products: life’s DHA and life’s ARA. These products are added to over 90 percent of infant formulas sold in the U.S., as well as to formulas sold in 65 other countries. This particular nutritional enrichment ingredient could previously only be found in human breast milk and offers substantial benefits to infants for the development of their brain, eyes, and heart health.
Firefighter’s Portable Breathing Systems
In developing lightweight materials for the U.S. Space Program, NASA and the National Bureau of Standards used aluminum composite materials to build breathing system components such as facemasks, harnesses, frames, and air bottles. In the early 1970s, this technology was adapted by the Johnson Space Center to improve the breathing systems used by firefighters. Scientists came up with a portable breathing apparatus that weighed a little more than 20 pounds and was designed to improve mobility. Other improvements included a new face mask with greater peripheral vision, a frame and harness that could be more comfortably controlled by shifting the weight load to the hips, and air-depletion warning technology.
Through hard work and research, electrical and aerospace engineers have made many discoveries while pursing projects sponsored by NASA—discoveries that have improved the lives and health of people everywhere, not just in space. Scientific studies by engineers and other professionals can have unexpected results, leading to patents and inventions that create for good with a lasting impact on society.
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