If you spend much time watching television or wandering through the bedding section of a local home store you may have seen memory foam, a type of comfortable mattress padding, touted as being created for the space shuttle. If you wondered how true this was the real fact is that it is – totally true. In fact, you may be surprised at how many space aged, NASA developed technologies have made it into our modern daily living. Here is a brief over of four such products, which NASA itself calls “spin off” products.
Memory Foam Yes, memory foam was originally designed so that astronauts could sit comfortably, particularly upon blast off and landing. Often called “Tempur Foam” for the company that holds the sales rights, this foam has the ability to perfectly contour to human, or inhuman, shapes, but then retains the “memory” of its original form and bounces back. This foam was created to be a shock absorber and is used in the space program on seats, beds and even walls. Just three inches thickness of this amazing foam can absorb the impact of a falling adult from ten feet high. Today, memory foam is used as mattress pads, seat cushions, padding for wheelchairs and crutches, artificial limb lining, splints and medical padding, athletic equipment padding and more. Modern memory foam is being increasingly used in high impact applications such as racing cars and airplane seats.
Saving Gas for the Airlines In 1998 scientist Heinz Erzberger won the NASA software of the year award when he invented a software system that helps air traffic controllers find the best route for an airplane to travel. Commonly called Direct-To, this software analyzes air traffic in real time and calculates the shortest route that a pilot can take to reach their destination. NASA conducted the first tests in air space over Dallas – Fort Worth, Texas and quickly learned that this software can get airplanes to their destinations more quickly, saving over 900 flying minutes each day just in this small test area. Boeing started using this software in 2011 and other airlines are following suit. Potentially thousands, even millions, of gallons of jet fuel can be saved by shortening flights with the NASA Direct-To software. This means a savings in money to the airlines (and presumably their customers), and a reduction in fuel consumption and emissions which benefit the entire planet. With such a huge savings in one small metro area, imagine the implications on a global level!
Hybrids on the Road NASA spacecraft use a variety of energy sources for power, making them in some ways the ultimate hybrids. In their continuing effort to find new power sources, NASA teamed with a commercial technology company in 2003 to retrofit one of their gas engine dragsters with NASA developed super capacitors. This testing helped pioneer technology upon which modern hybrids have been built, showing that gasoline engines can be retrofit to become gas / electric hybrids.
Ventilators In a continuing effort to develop technology that is both valuable to NASA space missions and has application to general public welfare, NASA partnered with Impact Instrumentation Inc. in New Jersey to innovate a new type of ventilator. Designed to move air in and out of the lungs of a person whose own ability to breath is compromised, ventilators are an important part of medicine in public, military and space applications. The idea behind the NASSA / Impact Instrumentation collaboration was to build not just a smaller ventilator that could travel to space but a smarter ventilator. The result was a ventilator that can be controlled remotely by skilled technical staff but also has the ability to complete many functions all on its own. While fully automated ventilation units are still being researched, this collaboration resulted in a next generation ventilator that is being used in hospitals around the country.
Making a Difference The list of NASA spin off items is huge; NASA even operates an entire website dedicated to sharing these advances. From fire suppression systems to advancement in clean energy, ventilators to comfortable bed foam, NASA is innovating in ways that are felt throughout the human experience, in space and on the Earth.