8 Technologies We Owe to the Apollo Space Program

SPACE WEEK 2019: The innovations of the Apollo program didn't stop at the Moon. Many technologies were created, or innovated into what they are today, thanks to the space program.
  • When you look up at the Moon you might think of all the amazing innovations it took to get us there. What you shouldn't forget, however, is how much our quest to reach the Moon has changed things down here for us on Earth. A lot of technologies ranging from consumer electronics to medical innovations all either got their start or their first major push thanks to work done by engineers, astronauts, and scientists working on the Apollo program.

     

    Here, we're counting down a few of the most notable.

    Click through the slideshow above to see eight technologies that wouldn't be where they are today if not for the Apollo program.

  • Athletic Shoes

    Today it's not at all unusual to find running or other athletic shoes with some sort of patented air compression technology for improved performance and comfort. That innovation came about because one shoe company, Avia, took some inspiration from the Apollo space suits. In the 1980s, in an effort to keep its shoes from wearing down as quickly, Avia turned to Al Gross, an aerospace engineer who had worked as a design engineer in the Apollo program, particularly around the design of spacesuits.

    The Apollo spacesuits (and later spacesuits) featured a "convolute system," a series of bellows in the joint areas that expand and contract (compress) every time the wearer moves, giving suit designers control over how much joint flexibility can vary in a spacesuit.

    Gross ported this technology over to Avia's shoes, creating a “compression chamber” system in the midsole. Each “chamber” was a pressurized shell, with horizontal bellows for cushioning and vertical columns for stability. By varying the shape and thickness of the compression chambers, shoe designers could alter the cushioning of the shoe.

    Similar technologies are found in a number of different shoe brands today. Though everyone still agrees, no matter what shoes you wear it's easier to perform a dunk on the Moon.

    (Image source: NASA)

  • Cordless Power Tools

    Black & Decker officially unveiled the first cordless power tools in 1961. But during the Gemini and Apollo programs cordless power tools got a major push when NASA contracted Black & Decker through a third party, the Martin Marietta Corporation, to design tools for use in space. Through its partnership with NASA, Black & Decker developed a series of cordless, lightweight, battery-powered tools including a rotary hammer drill and a zero-impact wrench for use in space flight.

    The work done by Black & Descker for NASA led to many of today's electric drills, screwdrivers, and similar tools as well as some battery-powered precision medical instruments. There was also a particularly '80s innovation to come out of all this as well – a handheld vacuum cleaner called the Dustbuster (you know you owned one!)

    (Image source: Black & Decker)

  • Dialysis

    An Apollo-era project aimed at recycling and purifying water for space missions also led to innovations in dialysis treatments. Under contract to NASA, the Marquardt Corporation developed a chemical process for purifying water that it discovered could also be used to remove waste from dialysis fluid. The company spun off its discovery to create a kidney dialysis machine that uses what is now-called “sorbent” dialysis.

    Sorbent dialysis removes urea from human blood by treating a dialysate solution. The solution is then treated and recycled back into the machine rather than being disposed of. The advantages of sorbent dialysis include less waste, better energy efficiency, easier customization to particular patient needs, and greater freedom of movement, especially for home dialysis patients.

    (Image source: NASA)

  • Digital Image Processing

    NASA scientists were the first to ever “zoom in and enhance.” In the 1960s, as a prelude to the Apollo program, researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed digital image processing technology to allow computers to enhance photos of the Moon. Since its inception digital image processing has been use widely through the space program as well as in many other industries. The work done by NASA formed the underpinnings to advancements in medical imagery – including CAT scans and MRIs.

    (Image source: NASA)

  • Fire-Resistant Clothing

    After a fire on the launch pad of the Apollo 1 spacecraft claimed the lives of three astronauts in 1967, NASA set about developing fire-resistant textiles for its vehicles and spacesuits. A contract with the Monsanto Company led to suits lined with a new fabric called Durette that was chemically-treated to resist burning. Another material, first synthesized in the 1950s called polybenzimidazole (PBI) was also put into use. Today the fire-resistant materials, as well as new breathing apparatus designed for NASA at the tim,e are the basis of similar safety materials used by firefighters and soldiers.

    (Image source: NASA)

  • Insulation

    Insulating material found in modern homes, clothing, and even food got its start as insulation coating the base of the Apollo landing modules. The material in question is a plastic, vacuum-metalized foil laid over a core of propylene or mylar. It's light enough to have minimal impact on the lunar lander's weight, but also strong enough to protect astronauts and sensitive equipment from infrared, heat, and other radiation. And if it's good enough for space it's good enough for a variety of commercial applications ranging from food packaging, to safety blankets, and photographic reflectors.

    (Image source: NASA)

  • Memory Foam

    Memory foam was first developed in 1966 for NASA aircraft seats as a covering to help absorb shock and vibration. Memory foam was first designed by Charles A. Yost, an aeronautical engineer with Systems Dynamics Group at North American Aviation Inc., who in 1962 helped build a recovery system for the Apollo command module. NASA later commissioned Yost to help devise a means to make it more likely that pilots and passengers would survive crashes in NASA craft. His solution was an open-cell, polymeric foam material that had very high energy absorption properties while also being able to maintain softness and pliability. Today memory foam has been commercialized to provide a good night's rest to astronauts and civilians alike all over the world.

    (Image source: NASA)

  • Wireless Headsets

    Apollo astronauts pioneered the use of wireless headsets. The particular company responsible for the wireless headsets used on the Apollo missions was Plantronics. How their technology ended up in the Apollo program was a bit of a happy accident. While NASA was researching solutions for a lightweight emergency communications system to use on-board spacecraft, Astronaut Wally Schirra happened upon Plantronics' product. He happened to like it and asked the company if they could make a version of it for use in his space helmet. Schirra wore the first Plantronics headset into space in October of 1962, when he orbited the Earth as part of the Mercury missions.

    Plantronics headsets went on to become a staple of the space program. When Neil Armstrong uttered his now-famous first words on the Moon he was using a Plantronics headset.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at   Design News  covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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