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NASA technology found in earthbound products

Sunday, July 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — When U.S. astronauts stepped onto the moon on July 20, 1969, their voyage was about exploration, discovery and pushing the boundaries of known technology.

In the 40 years since, NASA-related technology has come down to earth. Hundreds of everyday products have been developed or modified using aerospace research, from baby formula to swimsuits.

Speaking in April before the National Academy of Sciences, President Barack Obama highlighted scientific advances from the work to put astronauts on the moon:

"The Apollo program itself produced technologies that have improved kidney dialysis and water purification systems; sensors to test for hazardous gases; energy-saving building materials; and fire-resistant fabrics used by firefighters and soldiers. And, more broadly, the enormous investment of that era — in science and technology, in education and research funding — produced a great outpouring of curiosity and creativity, the benefits of which have been incalculable."

And while the president didn't explode this myth, it must be said:

NASA didn't create Tang.

"The first things people think of are Tang, Teflon and Velcro. None of them originated with the space program," said Roger Launius, senior curator in space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

According to Spinoff, a NASA publication about the practical benefits of aerospace research, astronaut John Glenn drank Tang while in orbit in 1962, upping the orange-flavored beverage's visibility and linking it to the space program, though General Foods Corp. developed the drink in 1957. Teflon, used for some heat shields and spacesuits, and Velcro, used to, well, keep equipment from floating around, have a role in the space program but originated well before NASA.

But there are plenty of items widely in use with ties to the space program. Here's a sampling:

— Global communications and GPS systems: NASA can't take credit for your cell phone or iPod. But it did develop smaller, more lightweight computer systems to put on its spacecraft, helping drive technology work in that direction. And while many satellites are commercially launched and owned these days, experts say we likely wouldn't have our global communications systems, or that GPS mounted on the dash, without NASA's work and support.

— Enriched baby formula: In the early 1980s, NASA conducted experiments with algae, to gauge how it might be used on long space flights involving humans to provide food, oxygen or help with waste disposal. Scientists realized the algae could provide nutritional supplements, like two fatty acids previously found only in human milk.

A Columbia, Maryland-based company called Martek Biosciences Corp. formed in 1985. It developed life'sDHA and life'sARA, nutritional additives which are the same fatty acids found in human breast milk. The products are believed to help with mental and visual development. The company says its DHA is now found in more than 100 foods and drinks and about 99 percent of the baby formula sold in the United States.

— Freeze-dried foods: No trip to the Air and Space Museum or the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, would be complete without a snack of crunchy, freeze-dried ice cream. Although NASA didn't invent the process of freeze-drying food, the agency worked on ways to better preserve foods and their nutrients. "They did enhance it; they advanced it," said Launius, who previously worked as NASA's chief historian. So backpackers ripping open a packet of freeze-dried camping food can give a nod in NASA's direction.

— Athletic fabrics, equipment and gear: Plenty of sports advances have ties to work done for NASA, from reflective blankets that runners wrap themselves in following marathons to strong, lightweight material in certain golf clubs to cushy padding in some sneakers. Nottingham, U.K.-based Speedo International Ltd. enlisted the help of NASA and others when it wanted to design swimsuits to reduce skin friction drag in the water. Twenty-five new swimming world records were set during the summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008 — 23 of those were by athletes wearing LZR Racer swimsuits, company officials said.

— Cordless tools: Black & Decker created cordless power tools separately from the space program, but later manufactured tools for NASA use. "We worked with them on a lunar cordless drill to take core samples from the moon," said Greg Moores, a vice president for the Towson, Maryland-based Black & Decker Corp. That cordless drill was first used on the moon in 1971 to drill holes to place probes to monitor the core temperature of the moon and to remove rock samples. He said there's a loose connection between that work and the company's power tools today. "Some of that work translated into modern-day cordless products," he said.


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