Man and the Moon: Invention, Innovation, and Entertainment

Even before man first stepped on the moon, Earth’s only permanent natural satellite fed human imagination, showing up as a powerful symbol in ancient folklore and popular culture alike. Its natural orbit shape our calendar and its force determines the ebb and flow of our greatest bodies of water.

Roughly 600 million people — one fifth of the world’s population — watched live as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and uttered his indelible but not entirely audible phrase, “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It is estimated that, between 1960 and 1973, NASA spent some $28 billion developing the rockets, spacecraft, and ground systems for the Apollo program, which included the moon-walking mission.

Today, both governments and commercial enterprises have set their eyes on prizes beyond the moon, with discovery and exploration of new corners of space, and entrepreneurs Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos vying for the chance to offer the first commercial trips to space. Indeed, the moon and beyond have become the ultimate symbols of human achievement and aspiration.

But while some dream of colonizing Mars and packing for a trip to the moon, it’s worth remembering that the space race has long been a source of innovation and inspiration, and that man’s quest for the moon has resulted in some very down-to earth technologies, products, and applications. Everything from more sophisticated weather sensing equipment, better prosthetics, global positioning satellites, personal computers, and solar batteries owe their provenance to space exploration. Here is a look at some other inventions who owe if not their origins then at least their popularity to the space race.

TELEMEDICINE

Considered by many to be the next frontier in providing both cheaper health care and health care to remote areas, telemedicine is a necessity for astronauts. Remote monitoring of astronauts’ physical condition goes back to the Mercury space program–the U.S.’s first manned space program.

The Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity (ADUM) developed by NASA in partnership with a Detroit hospital in Detroit is an example of technology that hopefully will be useful on both earth and in space. This portable ultrasound device can diagnose such varied ailments as abdominal conditions, collapsed lungs, and tooth infections.

FREEZE DRIED FOOD

Before you turn your nose up at instant coffee, bear in mind that astronauts get their caffeine fix from freeze dried coffee. In fact, freeze dried products provide much of the nutritional needs for men and women in space. Freeze drying was developed in 1938 by Nestlé. The final product retains some 98%  of its nutrition and only about 20% of its weight. Freeze-dried foods are a source of nutrition for disabled and homebound adults.

ULTRA-STRONG RADIAL TIRES

Goodyear Tire and Rubber developed a material five times stronger than steel, for NASA to use to help soft-land the Viking Lander spacecraft on Mars. Goodyear expanded the highly durable technology to produce a radial tire with a tread life expected to be 10,000 miles more than traditional radial tires.

UV RESISTANT SUNGLASSES
Anyone can pick up a pair of UV-resistant sunglasses, but they owe their origins to the advanced coatings that NASA sought to filter the extreme UV rays in outer space. The super-sensitive lenses are especially important for skiers, snowboarders, pilots, and welders.

PLASTIC BRACES

Those all but invisible plastic braces that allow adults to get their teeth straightened discreetly without the accompanying adolescent angst? Thank NASA for coming up with “translucent polycrystalline alumina,” originally a coating for infrared antennas.

CORDLESS TOOLS
Next time you reach for you Dustbuster or cordless drill, thank the engineers at NASA–and Black and Decker. NASA asked Black & Decker (now a subsidiary of Stanley) to develop software to optimize the functionality of Moon exploration equipment with reduced power consumption. Eventually, battery life became sufficient to allow to rechargeable, cordless tools of some heft and power.

WATER FILTRATION SYSTEMS

Recognizing that bottled drinking water would not be sufficient or practical for prolonged space missions, in the ‘70s, NASA developed water filtration systems suitable that used iodine filter cartridges. These cartridges are now used on earth by humanitarian relief teams working to supply potable water in areas where it is not available.

HONORABLE MENTION

Honorable mention goes to Tang, Velcro, “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Lost In Space,” and “Star Trek”. The two first two are often mistakenly attributed as NASA inventions, because their use in the space program gave them visibility and popularity.

John Glenn–the first man to orbit the earth–took Tang on a mission with him in 1962 to help mask some of the residual flavor left in treated drinking water. The tart orange powder became a fixture on flights afterward, and the General Foods product sponsored ABC’s 1968 coverage of the Apollo 8 mission. Velcro, invented by a Swiss electrical engineer in 1941, became NASA’s product of choice for anchoring equipment in zero gravity situations.

So great was NASA’s and the space program’s hold on the popular imagination that NBC developed a sitcom about an astronaut and a “genie” — imaginatively named “Jeannie”– that ran for five years. “I Dream of Jeannie” gave a comic and fictionalized look at the space program and the lives of astronauts. CBS’s offering on the space race was “Lost In Space,” launched in 1965. In this space-age twist on “The Swiss Family Robinson,” the Robinsons’ mission to Alpha Centauri is thwarted by a rogue scientist and a robot. NBC went beyond the moon and the known borders of space with the original “Star Trek” TV series, which ran for three seasons, starting in 1966.

“Star Trek” has achieved true cult status, with numerous spin-off TV series, films, novels, comic books, magazines, conventions for “Trekkies” and millions in merchandising dollars.  Perhaps more than anything else, it is a testament to our enduring fascination with what may lie beyond the borders of our world.