This past weekend in Culpeper was filled with both tragedy and triumph.  The annual Culpeper Air Fest suffered tragedy as a pilot lost his life performing acrobatics for the crowd Friday evening, but there was triumph, as the pilots and community came together on Saturday to put on a spectacular show and honor their fellow pilot.

From the time I was a young child, I’ve been enamored by flight. My dad worked in avionics for the majority of his 20+ year career in the Marine Corps and continued in that same field as a civilian.  I earned my private pilot’s license in 2008, so flying has always been some part of my life directly or indirectly.

After all the events of this packed weekend, I started wondering what types of technology have become staples of our everyday lives because of our desire to explore flight and test our limits.  In 1976, NASA, started an annual publication called, Spinoff.  This publication has over 2,000 items that have become commercial products as a result of NASA research projects.

Let’s clear up a few things first.  NASA cannot take credit for inventions that have become urban legends over time, including the orange drink TANG, Velcro straps, space pens, cordless power tools, or Teflon.  But NASA did work with other companies, such as Black & Decker, to create the first portable cordless vacuum to collect samples from the surface of the moon. For the full listing, I encourage you to check out the NASA Spinoff website and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) infographic.

A few samples:

  • Infrared Ear Thermometers -  NASA and Diatek Corporation used similar infrared technology to measure the temperature of planets and stars to measure how much energy comes out of the ear drum.

  • Camera Phones -  A team of scientists at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) worked to create small cameras in the 1990s that could fit on spacecraft.

  • Athletic Shoes -   NASA engineers were looking for rubber molding for the helmets that astronauts use.  A NASA engineer was the first to suggest the idea of using the molding as a shock absorber for shoes.

  • Foil Blankets -  The foil blankets that are given out at the end of marathons were first developed for use in space.

  • Baby Formula- This one might not be much of a shocker, but NASA research was looking for a nutritional element that could withstand long space flights.

  • Highways- NASA worked out a method to reduce aircraft running off of runways by creating grooved payment.  This method has also been integrated in major highways to channel water of the road greatly reducing car accidents.

  • Invisible Braces-  This is one of the craziest unexpected outcomes.  NASA was working on technology to help track missiles and ended up creating a component that is stronger than steel and can also straighten your teeth.

I write this in the miniscule hopes of convincing the skeptics out there that say we can’t afford these types of programs or its too risky.  Skeptics may argue that NASA has no practical value or going to the moon or shooting for Mars is science fiction hogwash with no real benefit for humanity.  Look down at the shoes on your feet and the cell phone in your hand as evidence of what boundary pushing can have on your life.

Now imagine a future where we are trying to get to Mars, a fuel is developed that is infinitely more efficient and pollutant free than anything we have used to date, or scientists create a method of terraforming Mars, making it more hospitable.  I am sure we will find practical applications for that here on Earth.  Seems worth it to me, what do you think?

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