To millions of people, space exploration is a waste of time and money. Earlier this month, when Elon Musk’s company SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster into orbit, the general public seemed divided; half were giddy at the display of technology and innovation, and the other half were disgusted that the $90 million effort wasn’t instead used for issues on Earth.
But the truth is, space exploration technology, and other discoveries and technologies that arise because of it, are incredibly influential and beneficial; not only does space research improve the economy by keeping scientists and engineers employed, it also results in new tech and gadgets—some of which we use in our everyday lives.
How Space Tech Becomes Everyday Tech
You might be perplexed by this concept, but the premise is easy to understand. Scientists need to conquer all kinds of new challenges when traveling to space, including:
- Traveling efficiently. It takes an inordinate amount of fuel to launch a rocket into space, so scientists are constantly developing new measures to make travel more efficient. These include new fuel types, new materials, and more aerodynamic designs.
- Traveling safely. NASA engineers also need to make sure the travel is safe for the people on board. That means developing safer, more durable materials for the vehicles and better equipment for the people on board.
- Improving human health. Astronauts face a variety of tough conditions in space, including low gravity and exposure to radiation. Accordingly, scientists have to incorporate new methods and materials to compensate for these health challenges.
- Discovering new things. Along the way, researchers are constantly discovering new things about space and Earth-based life we take along for the ride.
Examples of Space-Related Tech
That all sounds good in theory, but what actual results have we seen from pursuing space-related advancement?
- Arthritis improvement. In one recent study, Rush University paired up with the National Institutes of Health to make space travel easier on astronauts’ joints. Because microgravity conditions take a toll on astronauts’ bodies, scientists need a way to compensate for that damage. Their insights have broader implications for arthritis and joint pain, and could lead to new treatments and technologies to ease that pain.
- Infrared ear thermometers. When was the last time you had your temperature checked at a doctor’s office? Chances are, you used an infrared ear thermometer. This commonplace technology was supported by NASA back in 1991, as it relied on the same temperature-taking technology used to measure the temperature of stars and planets.
- Artificial limbs. In an effort to improve the capabilities of its robotic and extravehicular activities, NASA helped fund Environmental Robots Inc.’s breakthrough artificial muscle systems, which also used robotic sensing and actuation. These technologies were used for space exploration, but have also been revolutionary in creating more comfortable, functional prostheses for individuals.
- Baby formula. Baby formula seems removed from space exploration entirely, but it actually arose from a NASA research attempt to determine how microalgae could be used as a nutritional supplement on long trips. This work resulted in the invention of Formulaid, which is now a critical component of most baby formulas.
- Anti-icing tech. NASA is making the skies safer not just for astronauts, but also for everyday travelers. Their research into anti-icing technology has made flying safer for everyone, thanks to new electronic equipment, such as heating components.
- Comfortable mattresses. Remember the commercials for memory foam mattresses that claimed their comfy foam technology came from scientists at NASA? They weren’t lying. Temper foam technology originally started as a project to improve the comfortability of astronaut seats. Since then, it’s been used in mattresses, shoes, and football helmets.
- Invisible braces. If you’re thinking NASA invented invisible braces to help keep astronauts’ teeth aligned, you’re way off base here. The reality is, the material primarily used for invisible braces began life as a component for an advanced missile tracking (transparent polycrystalline alumina—TPA). The material’s ability to absorb light, it’s high strength (stronger than steel), and its smoothness makes it perfect for both applications.
- Water filters. Water and similar supplies present a massive challenge to space travelers. Even in the early days, NASA knew the best way to solve the problem was to recycle water that was being excreted or otherwise wasted—hence water filters, which have since been adopted by commercial companies and further developed for residential use.
As you can see, NASA and other space agencies have done far more than waste money to put big objects in space. Whether intentional or unintentional, the research done by astronauts and engineers have resulted in some technologies and products we may not have otherwise seen. Considering that we use some of them on a daily basis, it’s hard to picture what a life without space tech would be like.
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