With all the headlines surrounding the 50th anniversary of “man on the moon,” I’ve been intrigued by some of the technologies that were associated with the Space Race and how they permeate our culture today. Clearly, developing a rocket that could carry man to the moon and back necessitated developing some extraordinary technologies. Of course, many of these technologies we now use daily without realizing that they are spinoffs of the space program. In fact, NASA reports that approximately 2,000 spinoff technologies have evolved into commercially successful products.
Global Positioning System
One of the most commonly used spinoff technologies is the Global Positioning System (GPS). As more satellites entered orbit, it was necessary to have systems that could track and guide these tools. Further, with the Cold War raging and the associated threat of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, a system was necessary to guide this advanced weaponry in case it was used. The system that sprang to life to answer the needs of the 1960s and 1970s evolved into what we know today as GPS. As a technology, GPS is almost taken for granted in today’s world, enabling us to drive for one location to another, track the distance we jog, and improve the efficiency of delivering packages.
Near the end of the Space Race, we saw one of – if not the first – laptop computer. Known as the Shuttle Portable Onboard Computer (SPOC), the device had enough power to assist with navigating the Space Shuttle and managing other onboard functions. Of course, we have significantly more computing capacity in our mobile devices today, but mobile computing had to start somewhere!
The computer mouse dates back to the 1960s. At that time, NASA scientists were trying to ease the process of working with computers. Through the collaborative efforts of the team, the ubiquitous mouse was born and computing was changed forever, but not until the mouse became associated with personal computers in the 1980s.
Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors
As reported by TechRadar, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors also descend from the space race. Originally, these devices were used to detect toxic fumes and smoke on the Skylab as early as 1973. Now they are used in building everywhere to protect us in our homes and offices.
For gamers, perhaps no other outcome of the Space Race is as important as the joystick. Originally developed to ease the process of steering a rocket, today many video game players use joysticks. Other applications of joysticks now include steering boats, airplanes, and even controlling robots.
As mentioned above, the number of spinoff technologies from the Space Race that found commercial success exceeds 2,000. Others not listed here include ear thermometers, the “jaws of life,” dust busters, wireless headsets, memory foam, freeze-dried food, artificial limbs, foil blankets, water purification systems, scratch-resistant lenses, and LED lighting. Oh, and don’t forget Tang!
For those of us who remember that fateful day in 1969 when man landed on the moon, the 50th anniversary of this event stirs many emotions. The heroism, the sacrifices, and the commitment to the project all contributed to the success of the program. Yes, there were failures along the way, but the resolve of the men and women behind the scenes ensured that no task was too big and no hurdle was insurmountable. Their resolve and bravery gave us a wonderful moment on July 20, 2019. And fifty years later, we continue to benefit by taking advantage of the spinoff technologies resulting from the Space Race.