If you’ve got a memory foam mattress you love dearly, you’ve got NASA to thank for that. Temper foam, cochlear implants, and portable computers are just a few of NASA’s incredible inventions that were used for space exploration long before they became everyday items in society.
It’s no secret that space travel requires some pretty advanced technology. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is America’s civil space program whose mission is to “explore, discover, and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity.”
Over the years, NASA has designed technology that has often been ahead of its time. Many of these tools that were created for space travel have evolved into essential technologies we use every day.
In 1961, following a space shuttle incident in which a pilot could not contact his recovery team after the cabin flooded and took out all radio connections, NASA started searching for a self-contained radio transceiver that could be integrated into a helmet. At the time, ITT Labs had recently developed their MS-50 Headset, which used an acoustic tube connected to tiny transducers as both a microphone and receiver. This headset was soon incorporated into a radio receiver called a Kellorad unit that also featured noise-canceling technology.
Eventually, the design found its way into home and office products, creating those Bluetooth headphones you use daily.
In the early 1960s, NASA scientist Bob Taylor was “on the lookout for new ways of using computers to make them more useful, more interactive in some sense.” At the time, computers were used simply as arithmetic machines, but Bob and NASA researcher Doug Englebart had more ideas. Together, a project began to develop a device that would help manipulate data and allow humans to be more involved with computing systems.
These ideas expanded past just a computer mouse, as Doug wanted to “develop a way for capturing and sharing wide ranges of information among a group of people who are working cooperatively toward some end.” Thus, the futuristic concept of computers being used with displays, keyboards, and mouses was developed, which eventually led to the types of machines we now use every day.
In 1966, NASA’s Ames Research Center was working on developing a material that was both soft and super shock-absorbing to help protect pilots in the event of a crash. This polymeric temper foam not only helped cushion seats for impact but also made them more comfortable for the ride.
Once memory foam became available commercially, its uses became practically limitless. It has been used to cushion helmets, car seats, bike seats, military gear, and, of course, those oh-so-cushy mattresses.
In the 1970s, NASA engineer Adam Kissiah Jr., inspired by his struggles with conventional hearing aids, began experimenting with new designs. Using his background knowledge in electronic sensing systems, telemetry, and sound and vibration sensors, Adam created a new type of hearing aid that would also clarify sounds and amplify them.
Adam’s cochlear implant uses digital pulses to stimulate auditory nerve endings and send signals to the brain. Today, over 219,000 patients have received these revolutionary devices, allowing many born deaf to hear for the first time.
In 2013, the Johnson Space Center (JSC) Engineering Directorate built R5 (aka Valkyrie) to compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Trials. This entirely electric bipedal humanoid robot was a first for NASA and was designed to be capable of operating in degraded or damaged human-engineered environments. Ideally, the robot could assist on missions by testing travel and performing human-like tasks where it could be potentially dangerous to send a real person.
With advanced sensors and a body full of maneuverable joints, Val is considered to be one of the most sophisticated robots in existence.
For more stories about influential designs and inspirational innovators, check out our podcast, The Art of Engineering.