NASA may not have spent its own money to develop the million dollar space pen, but the space agency did change your life in countless other ways. Over the years, NASA's technology has led to countless innovative products that you use every day. Some you'd expect, and some you... definitely wouldn't.
With NASA's funding under the gun, it's a great time to remember all of the ways the agency's innovations have enriched us — including some surprising examples. Here are 10 off-the-wall products that resulted from NASA missions.
Top image: NASA/Getty Images.
1. Personal lubricant
Maybe you thought they called it Astroglide because it makes you feel like a star. But no. The clear, water-based lubricant was developed by an engineer named Dan Wray while he was working on the space shuttle's cooling systems at Edwards Air Force Base in 1977. (Oddly enough, this example isn't mentioned in NASA's own list of consumer products based on the agency's tech, and Astroglide's own website has dropped all mention of NASA recently, although it's mentioned on tons of other sites.)
2. An iPad App that can identify your location down to the centimeter
You can already download this app — it's called Ball Invasion, and it lets you shoot at balls that are hidden in the real world, in a particularly excellent form of augmented reality. The game was developed by a Swedish startup called 13th Lab, using a NASA technology called Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) that creates a 3-D map of the local environment and calculates your position in it. The technology was originally developed to help robots navigate, but 13th Lab was able to make it work using just an iPad's camera and other sensors. [via PopSci]
3. Using flowers for Sewage treatment
Waste treatment and recycling of water has been a major concern for NASA for decades, understandably — leading to the creation of NASA's Vascular Aquatic Plant Research Program. NASA researcher Bill Wolverton discovered that the water hyacinth, a weed that's super common throughout the Southern U.S., soaks up sewage, including hard-to-handle large pieces. The water hyacinth also soaks up heavy metals and other organic compounds from water. This miraculous process is due to tiny bacteria that live on the plant's root hairs, which break down the sewage into nutrients that the plant can absorb. Now, towns throughout the South are using water hyacinth lagoons to purify their wastewater. [via HowStuffWorks]
4. Microalgae in baby food
NASA partnered with Martin Marietta Corp. to explore the potential of microalgae as a food source, as well as a source of oxygen on long space flights. During the lengthy research process, the scientists realized the microalgae had potential as a food source on Earth, thanks to one strain called Crypthecodinium cohnii, which produces docosahexaenoc acid (DHA) naturally and in high quantities. Meanwhile, a strain of fungus turned out to produce arachidonic acid, a fatty acid that's crucial for infant health, in high quantities. The researchers spun off a new corporation to develop its nutritional potential. These "nutritional additives" now appear in 90 percent of all baby formula sold in the United States, and also are used in many products for adults. [via NASA]
5. Perfume based on how roses smell in low gravity
A perfume company, International Flavors & Fragrances, wanted to know if roses would smell the same in low gravity, so they cultivated a miniature rose called Overnight Scentsation to grow inside a plant growth chamber called ASTROCULTURE in the midsection of the Space Shuttle Discovery. The rose grew during a 10-day flight on board the shuttle, and researchers discovered that roses do indeed smell different in low gravity — because their production of volatile oils, or essential oils, is different. Astronauts sampled the molecules of the flower during the flight, gathering four samplings of how it smelled in space, and then IFF was able to synthesize a scent based on it. The result was Zen, a perfume from Shiseido. [via NASA]
6. Golf balls that fly straighter
The external tanks on the Space Shuttles contain liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, and NASA developed technology to keep the liquid from sloshing around and disrupting the smooth, predictable motion of the shuttle. Similarly, the center of a golf ball contains liquid — so when Wilson Sporting Goods Co. was developing a new golf ball, they turned to an engineer who used to work on the external tank airloads and "slosh control" for the shuttles — thus resulting in a ball that offers unmatched accuracy and distance. [via NASA]
7. Life-saving grooves
This could be the most valuable of NASA's innovations, in terms of lives saved. NASA engineers discovered that cutting thin grooves across concrete runways would reduce the risk of hydroplaning, because the grooves create channels to drain off excess water. As a result, hundreds of airports have had their runways "grooved." And the use of grooves on highways has reduced highway traffic accidents by 85 percent. [via NASA]
8. A handheld acne-treatment device
Tyrell Inc. founder Robert Conrad suffered from adult acne, and was working on a method to use heat to shock and kill the acne-causing bacteria without damaging the surrounding skin. His device was too cumbersome and expensive to produce — until NASA's Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP) hooked him up with a Boeing Company design engineer who worked at Kennedy Space Center. The result: the heating element in the device was smaller, and cost only 10 cents instead of $80 to produce, and Zeno is now a fast-growing product. [via NASA]
9. Nanomaterials for hairstyling
NASA scientist Dr. Dennis Morrison spent decades researching nano-ceramic materials — tiny particles of ceramics, 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. Among other things, he developed microcapsules full of drugs, that could be injected into cancerous tumors. But Morrison also helped develop a blend of nanoceramic and metals, that could be used in hair-care implements like hair irons — so that when the iron is heated, it releases negative ions that make the hair shinier and more manageable. He's also researching using near-infrared light from LEDs to stimulate hair growth and speed up hair drying time. [via HowStuffWorks]
When NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak went ballistic and drove from Houston to Orlando wearing her space-age diapers, on her way to confront her rival for a fellow astronaut's affections, the world's attention was focused on NASA's diaper technology like never before. But actually, the same technology used in NASA's Maximum Absorbency Garments (MAGs) is used in regular diapers — it's a super-absorbent polymer called sodium polyacrylate. This polymer is also used in gardening, because it can absorb water and keep it stored in the soil during a drought. [via Hampton Roads.]
Additional reporting by Mandy Curtis.