From Dustbusters to GPS: technology from space exploration

from dustbuster to gpsOctober 4, 1957, in the Kazakh Republic. Sputnik was launched at 20:29 Moscow time—the first object sent to space. The satellite travelled at 18,000 mph and ventured 584 miles from Earth. Officially launched as part of the International Geophysical Year, the Soviet spacecraft was impressive as it circled Earth every 96 minutes. The United States was in awe—so much so that a year after Sputnik’s launch, President Dwight Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 

Space technology used in everyday life 

The Space Race began and, despite peaking in 1973, it has never really ended. This celestial pursuit led to man landing on the moon and the creation of the International Space Station. Although the majority of tech created due to the Space Race has remained outside most people’s orbit, some of it has profoundly impacted the world in which we live.

Here are nine examples of space technology we have domesticated in commercial electronic products.

1. The computer mouse

In the 1960s, computers were used mainly for arithmetic; however, researchers at NASA wanted to use them for flight control systems, flight displays, and simulation technology. Therefore, engineers needed to be able to manipulate on-screen data and increase interaction with computers on spacecraft.

Most researchers focused on developing a pen-type device to interact with computers, but Doug Englebart worked on what we now call the mouse. Englebart 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.” He achieved his goal by creating the keyboard and mouse.

2. Air and surface cleaners

In the 1990s, a NASA research group was trying to eliminate the organic chemical ethylene, which accumulates around plants growing in spacecraft. Inadvertently, they stumbled upon a solution known as photocatalytic oxidation and invented an ethylene “scrubber”. In addition to eliminating ethylene, it also removed other airborne organic compounds and neutralised bacteria, viruses, and moulds.

The scientific reason for this is that when ultraviolet light hits titanium dioxide, electrons are released that convert oxygen and moisture into highly reactive hydroxyl radicals. Air contaminants are then oxidised by these charged particles and turned into carbon dioxide and water.

This technology has been used in a number of machines that clean air by neutralising airborne contaminants and pathogens. The oxidisers sent out into the surrounding environment also clean services when they settle. The NASA spinoff technology is, for example, used in hotel rooms, where it has been found to eliminate bacteria and fungus populations. It has also been used inside cars used in heavily polluted cities to clean the air and make it safe for the driver to breathe.

3. Wireless headsets

Getting your wires crossed in space is not ideal. Therefore, in 1961, NASA astronaut Wally Schirra helped design the first wireless headsets to allow astronauts to communicate without getting tangled together. Surprisingly, it only took NASA 11 days to design and manufacture a microphone headset; each microphone circuit had two in-built transducers, and each receiver had five transducers to make them reliable. This technology was the basis for today’s wireless headphones.

4. Adjustable smoke detectors

Fires inside spaceships where noxious gases are present must be put out quickly. NASA learnt this lesson on January 27, 1967, when there was a fire on board Apollo 1. In the 1970s, NASA developed improved fire alarms that had adjustable sensitivity levels to prevent false alarms. The fire detectors we all have at home now were designed thanks to the first iteration used in Skylab, the first US space station.

5. Camera phones

In the 1990s, Eric Fossum, a NASA scientist, researched smaller cameras for space missions. Finally, he developed the Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) image sensor for space exploration, but images taken with this technology had signal noise and other issues. So he developed CMOS active pixel sensors using Charge Coupled Device (CCD) technology, which allowed high-quality photographs to be taken from space. When it was publicly released, CMOS active pixel sensors revolutionised digital imaging. This technology is now standard in smartphones, computers, and GoPro cameras.

6. Global Positioning Systems (GPS)

Before Yuri Gagarin went into space in 1961, the Russian and US space programmes sent satellites to space that could communicate with people on the ground. We have been sending satellites up ever since—more than 6000, of which 3000 are currently operational. 

Some of today’s commercial satellites make up the GPS network, allowing smart devices to read their exact location anywhere on the planet. Google Maps is, perhaps, the most famous user of the satellite GPS networks. Much research is currently being undertaken into self-driving cars that are fitted with sensors and use GPS to navigate. There are also many potential industrial applications of GPS controlled vehicles—tractors, for example, can use GPS to spray fertiliser and harvest crops.

7. Black & Decker DustBuster

The Black & Decker DustBuster is a cordless vacuum cleaner that first appeared on the market in 1979. However, the technology that ended up in the vacuum was developed by NASA when it was working on the Apollo space mission, which needed a cordless drill to remove samples from the surface of the moon. NASA refined a computer programme that helped the drill be energy efficient, and this technology led to the cordless vacuum cleaner.

8. LEDs

From the early 1990s, NASA began experimenting with LED technology which it used for two reasons: The first was to help plants grow on space shuttles; they are essential to long-lasting space missions for food and their photosynthetic properties. The second was to help regulate sleep cycles—the 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours on the International Space Station play havoc with astronauts’ body clocks. Fluorescent bulbs containing mercury and glass—dangerous for astronauts—were replaced with LED fixtures. These help manage astronauts’ sleep cycles as they have three modes of operation: general task lighting, a pre-sleep mode, and a wake-up mode.

This technology has been carried over into the consumer market, where high-energy consuming, environmentally damaging lighting products have been replaced with more sustainable LED alternatives. It has also been used by biomedical engineers who have implemented the technology in devices that relax muscles and relieve pain in patients suffering a range of ailments, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and arthritis. Medical-grade LED light therapy devices uses 60 powerful medical-grade LED lights to stimulate blood circulation and relax muscles.

9. Infrared ear thermometers

The standard under-the-arm thermometer is, unfortunately, not able to measure the temperature of stars. NASA, therefore, had to develop infrared technology that could. An infrared sensor based on this technology was developed and put inside an ear thermometer, which measures the amount of energy projected by a patient’s ear canal. This device instantly takes someone’s temperature without the risk of cross-contamination. 

Conclusion

Historically, we have benefitted from products that were borne out of space tech. However, human life is fast becoming highly connected with space. For example, advancements in space technology are democratising the internet and providing us with a better understanding of climate change—both of which have societal consequences. Engineers are also researching suborbital point-to-point travel solutions that could make travelling from London to Tokyo possible in an hour. 


Becoming closer to space will be a boon for the manufacturing industry. There will be many opportunities to manufacture parts for satellites and space rockets. There is even the possibility that huge power stations might be built in space to capture solar energy and beam it back to power Earth. Now that’s a manufacturing challenge.

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