The organization most well known for putting the first man on the moon, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is the USA’s governmental branch most responsible for transforming science fiction into science fact. Incredibly important to the scientific community on both the largest and smallest of scales, the organization is as fabled and iconic as they come. And while their most tremendous endeavors are things of legend, their smaller developments often trickle down into the realm of civilian usage.
With a history that dates back six decades, dozens-to-hundreds of technologies have been created by or for use by NASA. And many of those things have made their way from spacecraft to department stores in some form or another. From sneakers to snack foods and everything in-between, there’s a huge variety of NASA-developed gear you can get here on Earth. We’ve rounded up 22 of the best civilian applications in this comprehensive guide.
What Is NASA?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration
While most folks know that NASA is the wing of the United States government that’s chiefly responsible for the country’s spacefaring efforts, not a lot of people know exactly what NASA is or what the organization actually does. In effect, NASA’s origins date back to 1946 with a different organization called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, for short). It was this institution that set the U.S. on its way toward the exploration of space, thanks to its endeavors with rocket planes (like the fabled supersonic Bell X-1).
What really propelled the U.S. government to create NASA, however, was the fear of foreign powers (Russia, specifically) gaining a technological foothold outside of Earth’s atmosphere and, thusly, creating a threat to national security — a direct result of the launch of the Sputnik satellite. As such, NACA and president Dwight D. Eisenhower began the development of their own space program. Then, in 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act and established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, colloquially known as NASA.
Distinctly and purposefully civilian oriented, NASA was intentionally created with the intention of pursuing the peaceful development and application of space sciences. As most folks know, this endeavor has resulted in a number of tremendous achievements — including the lunar landing, the Space Shuttle program, the creation of Skylab (which directly led to the development and support of the International Space Station), the Mars rover project, the Hubble telescope, numerous groundbreaking satellite projects, and a good deal more. But NASA has a secondary purpose that’s perhaps a bit more esoteric.
You see, the scientific endeavors of NASA’s scientists are not and have never been intended strictly for spacefaring usage. Rather, the technology was and is intended to be shared amongst other government agencies and the greater civilian populous. The reason for this is simple: technologies developed for use by humans in space almost always have a direct benefit to those of us back here on Earth. Known as NASA Spinoff Technologies, these scientific achievements are as numerous as they are unostentatious. In fact, some of them have been so inconspicuously ingrained into our collective consciousness, you might not even know they were first made or used by NASA.
Mountain House Adventure Meals
As you can probably assume, technology can be pretty delicate. In fact, dust- and water-resistant smartphones have only just popped up over the last few years, meaning older technologies are even more susceptible to suffering negative effects caused by moisture, food crumbs, and more. That’s was a major issue for NASA — who needed to keep their astronauts fueled up without risking damage to the delicate components on their spacecraft and space stations. To combat this, NASA began sending their astronauts into space with a multitude of freeze-dried foods to keep them nurtured. Eventually, NASA moved on from freeze-dried foods — thanks largely to the fact that they were considered unappetizing and still ended up creating crumbs — but they’re still readily available on Earth in the form of MREs, survival bars, and camping cuisine like Mountain House’s Adventure Meals. Sure, they’re not exactly five-star meals, but they’re packable, easy to prepare, and offer a lot more variety than granola.
Swiss Safe Emergency Thermal Blankets
On Earth, the hottest air temperature ever recorded is 134.1°F. But, without the protection of the planetary atmosphere, temperatures in orbit can easily get up as high as 248°F. Similarly, outside of the sun’s reach in the shadow of the planet, temperatures routinely drop as low as -148°F. Obviously, these are not survivable temperatures for humans and they’re not good for the technology in spacecraft either. So, NASA had to figure out ways to insulate their spacecraft, satellites, space suits, etc. without adding on too much unnecessary bulk. To cope, the agency called upon DuPont and their biaxially-oriented polyethylene terephthalate (BoPET, for short) — a polyester film that’s reflective, insulating, stable, lightweight, thin, and perfect for use in all the aforementioned space gear. You might know it better as Mylar. Today, it can be found in abundance in emergency-use thermal blankets — the kinds you might find in a bug out bag or aboard an ambulance — but it’s also used for numerous other applications.
In space, natural resources are in extremely short supply, as the only ones to be found are those transported there through human ingenuity. Most obviously and importantly, this includes the likes of oxygen, food, and water. That latter bit was especially concerning for the scientists at NASA, who had to send water into space for a multitude of reasons, including keeping their astronauts hydrated for months at a time and making every use of every single drop of water available. As such, they created the first electrolytic silver iodizer, which inspired every single water filtration system developed since. To this day, NASA uses a water filtration system onboard the ISS that takes in condensation, runoff, and even urine and transforms it into drinkable water. The pocket-size Lifestraw you see here, which can filter out up to 99.999% of all contaminants from any water source, exists as a direct result of this same technology.
Fisher Space Pen
Pressurized Ink Cartridge
Back in 1968, Apollo 7 launched into space with the mission of orbiting the Earth over the course of 11 days. Along with all their other gear, they were given a special writing utensil developed by Paul Fisher called the Anti-Gravity 7. Since that mission, every single NASA manned space mission has included a Fisher Space Pen as a standard part of the astronauts’ gear. And while that’s an achievement unto itself, what’s even better for the rest of us back here on the planet is that the same pressurized ink cartridge the astronauts use — the one that can write underwater, upside-down, or in zero gravity — is available for civilian purchase, as well. Whether you want the exact pen used by NASA astronauts, one that’s a bit sleeker and more smallscale for your everyday carry loadout, or something else with the same onboard cartridge, Fisher Space Pen has you covered.
Razer DeathAdder Elite
As you probably know, space travel as we know it would not be possible without the complex calculating power of computers. What you might not know, however, is that what we know of as computers today are vastly easier to use than those of the past. In fact, there was a time when users had to navigate the machines’ complex digital architecture without the use of a mouse. To make things easier, a man by the name of Bob Taylor — who worked in the Office of Advanced Research and Technology at NASA — enlisted Doug Englebart, a researcher at the Stanford Research Institute, to develop a simple and straightforward device to more easily navigate the advanced flight control systems, flight displays, and simulation technology NASA had been developing. As a result, the very first computer mouse was born. Interestingly, while there is a lot of variation in mice of the present day, they’re still remarkably similar in format and function to the original — even Razer’s fabled DeathAdder Elite gaming variety.
There are a few technologies we use on Earth that were not specifically designed by or developed for NASA, but the agency no less helped further their technological evolution. Such is the case with light-emitting diodes (better known as LEDs). Invented back in 1962 by Nick Holonyak Jr., a scientific engineer working for General Electric, LEDs and LED lighting are the cornerstones of some of NASA’s most advanced endeavors — including using red light LEDs in off-planet hydroponics (growing vegetables for Mars colonization, for instance) and the development of light therapy for astronauts. These studies and technological developments have directly influenced the medical fields — especially when it comes to light therapy devices like the WARP 10, a unit that uses red LEDs in its operation to help alleviate chronic pain. While the LEDs found in everyday carry flashlights — like those made by Foursevens — typically create white light, their current form and efficiency are still owed in part to the work of NASA.
Nike Air Sneakers
Blow Rubber Molding
Nike (originally called Blue Ribbon Sports) was first launched by former University of Oregon runner Phil Knight and his former coach Bill Bowerman. And while they really came into their own in 1969 with the first release of their legendary Cortez, the end of the 1970s called for a bit of a refresh. So the shoe giant called upon the expertise of M. Frank Rudy, a former NASA engineer, to help them with a release called the Nike Air Tailwind — the first in Nike’s ever-growing lineup of Air sneakers. These new shoes utilized a technique Rudy borrowed from his days at NASA, called blow rubber molding, that was used in the creation of the Apollo mission’s helmets. This technique allowed Nike to create smalle hollow pockets in the soles of their shoes that were filled with dense gasses. And so, Nike Air was born. Today, they still utilize the same techniques in the creation of some of their sneakers — especially ones with retro styling.
While NASA was planning for the now-famous Moon landing, they ran into a bit of a speedbump: they needed to figure out ways to easily and efficiently collect mineral samples from the lunar surface for analysis back on Earth. So, what did they do? They enlisted Black+Decker, the famous tool manufacturer, to develop a sample-collecting technology. What they came up with was a drill capable of gathering samples from as deep as 10-feet below the surface of the Moon. What’s perhaps more interesting, however, is that the brand took what they learned from the creation of that sample drill and further refined and repurposed it into the world’s first handheld cordless vacuum. When it was finally released to the public, it would come to be known as the Dustbuster.
While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a very long history of developing their technologies in-house, they also know that it’s sometimes a good deal more efficient to call upon field experts and contract development outside of their walls. These agreements are also always mutually-beneficial to both NASA and the companies upon which they call, as is evidenced by their longstanding partnership with Goodyear — the rubber and tire company. Their working relationship is a long one that’s recently picked up steam, as NASA had fairly recently contracted Goodyear to help replicate and improve the airless wireframe tires used on the lunar lander. They also asked Goodyear to help develop puncture-proof rubber to be used on vehicles for NASA’s upcoming Moonbase project. And pretty much from the onset of this ongoing partnership, Goodyear has been taking all they’ve learned and developed and imbued it wherever applicable to their earthbound offerings.
Warby Parker Fletcher Sunglasses
Space is one big dangerous bunch of nothing. Not only is it impossible for humans to breath (due to a complete lack of air), but without any sort of atmosphere, both astronauts and spacefaring technology are exposed to extreme temperatures and whatever random debris (manmade or otherwise) might be floating around out there. To counter these very real and random threats, folks at Lewis Research Center (now the John Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field) began to work on developing artificial coatings with the same hardness of diamonds to be applied to various surfaces for added durability and protection. Eventually, this technological substance would come to be known as DLC (short for Diamond-Like Carbon) and would be applied to a huge variety of earthbound pieces of gear ranging from everyday carry knives, to wristwatches, to the lenses of glasses. In fact, all scratch-resistant lenses of the modern day owe their added protection directly to this NASA development.
GoalZero Nomad 7 Plus
Monocrystalline Solar Panel
NASA did not invent solar cells — electrical devices that convert light energy into electricity. Rather, that distinction dates back as far as 1839 (more than a century before NASA was founded) and belongs to French physicist Edmond Becquerel. The organization did recognize their value in providing power to their spacefaring tech almost immediately. Even the earliest of NASA’s satellites utilized solar tech in some way. After applying the tech to their endeavors, however, NASA’s scientists realized they could improve them vastly in regards to efficiency — so they developed what’s now known as monocrystalline panels that were up to 50% more efficient to their polycrystalline counterparts. That huge advancement changed the face of solar energy forever. In fact, all modern solar panels — even portable ones like the GoalZero Nomad 7 you see here — utilize it as their primary power-generating feature.
VI Sense Wireless Headphones
Artificial Intelligence Personal Trainer
While they didn’t come up with the idea out of thin air — that credit is owed to science-fiction writers from long before NASA was founded and even has roots that date back to pre-19th century folklore — Artificial Intelligence (or Virtual Intelligence, as it is sometimes known) would not exist as we know it today without the work of NASA. The earliest examples, according to the Kennedy Space Center, were designed and served to detect and alert pilots who were on the verge of blacking out due to excessive g-forces. After extensive development, a company called LifeBEAM got their hands on the tech and altered the programming for consumer use in the form of workout-optimizing assistance. Now, there are a number of devices that utilize similar tech in their operation — like the VI Sense Wireless Headphones with Harman Kardon sound. They can track your steps, heart rate, and even encourage your exercise.
As anyone who has spent an extensive amount of time using wired headphones can tell you, those wires get in the way a lot — especially if the activities in which you are participating are even remotely physical. Turns out NASA’s astronauts ran into a very similar problem, except their wired headphones had the potential to turn deadly, as operations in a space capsule, aboard a shuttle, or on a space station are often complex and time-sensitive. So, NASA contacted ITT Labs in Fort Wayne, Indiana to create a self-contained Kellorad radio transceiver unit based on a Pacific Plantronics-developed headset called the MS-50 (made for United Airlines). In just 11 days, NASA had integrated the system into their spacefaring helmets along with a noise-canceling microphone. Every subsequent wireless headphone developed owes its existence to NASA and Pacific Plantronics’ developments back in the 1960s. Yes, that also includes Apple’s industry-topping AirPods.
Case Astronaut Knife M-1
Utility Fixed Blade
A lot of bladed utility tools have been used onboard NASA spacecraft — including Swiss Army Knives, folding knives from Emerson, and more. But one was developed for astronauts specifically at the behest of NASA with exacting blueprints. Contracted through Case Cutlery — the same renowned knife-making brand behind the fabled Stockman three-bladed folding knife — the Astronaut M-1 Knife was a multi-functional fixed blade that very closely resembled a machete. This blade, which was aboard during both the Apollo and Gemini missions, featured an 11.75″ blade with a razor-sharp saw on its back mated to a sturdy and lightweight synthetic handle. While that blade is no longer standard aboard NASA craft, Case has recently released a special edition of the exact same knife for public purchase. It’s available now if you can get your hands on it, but the limited quantities made make for a difficult find.
Garmin GPSMAP 64st
Global Positioning System
While the Space Race itself was catapulted forward by the competition between the United States and Soviet governments, one specific development that’s become as commonplace as sliced bread saw perhaps the largest and most beneficial impact of the competitiveness. GPS — short for Global Positioning System — can trace its origins back to the Sputnik-era, during which scientists used the “Doppler Effect” to track the satellite based on shifts in its radio signal. Building on this, the Department of Defense called upon NASA to create a satellite grid around the planet to function as a robust and accurate navigational system for use back here on Earth. The first Navigation System with Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR, for short) satellite was launched in 1978, with the rest of the 24-satellite system becoming fully operational in 1993. Today, GPS — and its Russian competitor, GLONASS — are used around the world in everything from vehicle navigation systems, to those aboard smartwatches, to dedicated GPS devices like the Garmin GSMAP 64st you see here.
The ultralight, ultra-tough synthetic substance known as Aerogel was not invented by NASA. Rather, it was created by a scientist by the name of Dr. Samuel Stephens Kistler sometime between 1929 and 1930. However, while the substance was commercialized as early as the 1950s, it was NASA that saw the potential of its application as an insulation material, as they discovered that it protected against extreme temperatures — as illustrated when unlit matches were placed on one side of a bit of aerogel and an open flame was applied to the other, eliciting no change in temperature on the side with the matches. As such, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center contracted a company called Aspen Technology to develop insulation out of the substance for use in astronauts’ space suits to keep them comfortable in the deep freeze of space. Following that, Oros Apparel was the first company to take it to the civilian market — imbuing all their outerwear with aerogel insulation that was thin, exceedingly light, yet still protects the wearer from even the most extreme temperatures on Earth.
Nikon D3300 DSLR Camera
In the early 1990s, a man by the name of Eric Fossum — who worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratories outside of Los Angeles — was working on creating an alternative type of image sensor for cameras in order to slim down their bulkiness. It was such a lofty project, Fossum remembered people calling him crazy for even thinking he could accomplish such a feat, especially because people had been trying and failing to achieve the very same goal since the 1960s. But then, he had a breakthrough — resulting in the creation of the very first complementary metal oxide semiconductor, known today as CMOS. Of all of NASA’s inventions, the CMOS is probably the most ubiquitous, as today it can be found in just about every smartphone on the planet, along with a vast number of dedicated cameras — like the Nikon D3300 DSLR camera pictured above. Of everything to come out of NASA’s labs, this sensor is probably the best example to illustrate just how important the government agency is to the modern world.
When they were first invented, computers were massive hulking machines capable of little more than calculating the answers to math equations. As time went by, technologies advanced that allowed them to be made smaller and smaller. But the biggest and most important jump in sizing down these devices came at the behest of NASA scientists who were looking to create more portable units to be used in space flight. So, NASA took an invention called the GRiD Compass, created by Bill Moggridge, and modified it into the first space-bound laptop — codenamed SPOC (Shuttle Portable On-Board Computer). Technically, the GRiD Compass was the world’s first laptop and was not created directly by NASA. But NASA’s work on SPOC was what propelled the commercial market forward and categorically influenced every laptop that’s been invented since — including Microsoft’s stupendous Surface you see here.
While many of NASA’s developments were intended for use in space flight applications, not all of them are. In fact, in the 1970s, the governmental branch was tasked with creating better seat cushioning and crash protection for airline pilots and passengers. So they funded extensive research that resulted in the creation of a kind of padding that was soft, yet firm enough to provide excellent support under heavy loads. They called it “temper foam,” but the greater public would come to know it under a very different name after it started popping up in department and home goods stores in the form of pillows and mattresses. Memory foam, as it is now known, is still widely used in mattresses, pillows, and more — including the exceedingly popular Casper mattress you see before you.
Fire-Dex Complete Package
Firefighter Turnout Gear
In case it hasn’t become abundantly obvious, space (and everything relating to traveling to and from space) is exceedingly dangerous. One of the big risks to astronauts comes in the form of exposure to extreme temperatures and heat sources. As such, NASA needed to create textiles that could survive said conditions. So, they created a line of polymer fibers that could be woven into cloth and boasted extreme resistance to catching aflame. Known as PBI (short for Polybenzimidazole), this material has trickled down into a wide variety of other industries, including usage in firefighter turnout gear (like you see above), motorsports racing suits, military uniforms, and a good deal more.
Omega Speedmaster Chronograph
For more than half a century — including during the Apollo missions — NASA has trusted one name and one name alone when it comes to the timekeepers they supply to their astronauts: Omega. More specifically, the Omega Speedmaster chronograph has been a standard piece of gear in some form or another across the decades. Made to exacting standards, this was the watch that helped save the Apollo 11 astronauts from certain doom. And if it’s good enough for some of the greatest heroes on or off our planet, you can bet it’s good enough for just about any activity here on Earth. It’s also worth noting that, while Omega offers up NASA-specific Speedmaster chronographs, this watch comes in a very wide variety of styles suited to just about any tastes. And, at their core, they function the same and are built with the same level of care as those that have gone into orbit or to the Moon and back.
Arc'Teryx Beta AR Jacket
As we’ve mentioned multiple times throughout this article, not everything you see on this list was directly created by NASA. However, every single bit of it was improved upon and evolved by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. That includes one of our all-time favorite technologies, GORE-TEX. Known for its application across the gear world — in apparel, footwear, bags, etc. — this waterproofing technology got a NASA contract of its own when the company was called upon to help create the spacesuits for the very first Space Shuttle mission, Columbia. As with all the other contracted companies on this list, GORE-TEX’s participation in this matter directly benefitted both the brand and the rest of the world, as they took what they learned making space suits for NASA and applied the lessons to all their gear since.
The Ultimate Guide To GORE-TEX
With the clearest connection between the world of NASA technologies and outdoor gear, GORE-TEX is one of our all-time favorite human developments. Learn everything you need to know about it on our ultimate guide to GORE-TEX.
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